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Monday, March 08, 2010

The Final Chapter for Libraries?

This column of mine appears in The Morning Star. It’s also cross-posted at the Campaign For Public Ownership website.

The NHS is a great example of socialism in action. Public libraries are another. The idea of a place where all members of the community can go to borrow books which are communally owned is a quite wonderful one and totally at odds with neoliberal ideology, which prefers private - and not public - provision.

This is probably why, in this age of neoliberalism, public libraries in Britain are under grave threat. 

A new report by the Valuation Office Agency showed that Britain has lost nearly 200 public libraries since 1997.

The number of books available to be borrowed has fallen dramatically - by 13 million in the period 2003-9. And worse could be to come, with swingeing cutbacks in local government spending likely to reduce the library service still further.

Part of the problem with the decline in libraries is that a new generation of people, brought up in an age obsessed with private ownership, prefer to buy books from bookshops rather than borrow them free of charge from their local library.

In 1979, by contrast, two-and-a-half times as many books were loaned by libraries than were bought at bookshops.

It's revealing that older people - brought up in a more collectivist era - use public libraries much more than younger Britons whose formative years were in an acquisitive society where private ownership became our country's new religion.

To reverse the decline in public libraries, therefore, we don't just have to increase spending on them. We need to change the whole ethos of our society to one where people once again relish sharing communally owned goods.

Hoping for change in Germany

One of the most disappointing political events of the last year in western Europe was the return to government in Germany, after an 11-year absence, of the fanatically pro-big business Free Democratic Party (FDP).

The FDP, a partner in the current Christian Democrat (CDU)-led coalition, favours massive cuts in public spending, cuts in the top rate of income tax and further privatisation.

The new German government has stated its intention to proceed with a partial privatisation of the country's state-owned railway Deutsche Bahn.

But the good news is that the plan has met opposition from within the government itself.

Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer - a member of the Christian Social Union party, the Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel's CDU - said he was not prepared to "squander economic assets" and blamed privatisation plans for the deterioration in services on the Deutsche Bahn-owned S-Bahn in Berlin.

The battle going on within the German government is one between fanatical neoliberals - the FDP - and the more moderate conservative protectors of the Rhineland model.

Let's hope the latter, with help from unions and the German left, can defeat the former and keep Germany's excellent publicly owned railway on track. And let's hope too that the stay in government of the extremist FDP is extremely short-lived.

Tackling the real problem in the NHS

The script is a familiar one. Before a state-owned enterprise is privatised, it is necessary to convince the public that the enterprise in question is failing to deliver the goods and is in urgent need of "reform."

That's what happened in the 1990s with British Rail. And it's what's happening today with the NHS.

Anti-NHS propagandists have made great capital out of a recent report on the failures at Stafford hospital, where at least 400 patients were held to have died due to substandard conditions and care in the period between 2005-8.

But as Unite's national officer for health David Fleming has pointed out, Stafford's problems were not caused by public ownership but by the obsession with what he describes as the "target-obsessed privatisation culture."

Stafford hospital was run by the Mid-Staffordshire Foundation Trust. The Department of Health claims that foundation trusts are "at the cutting edge of the government's commitment to the decentralisation of public services" - which is neoliberal-speak for "they are a great back-door way to achieve privatisation of the NHS."

With their commercialised, profit-obsessed approach - and their £180k chief executives - foundation trusts are inimical to the very ethos of Nye Bevan's NHS.

Last month it was revealed that Royal Surrey County NHS Foundation Trust made a profit of over £300,000 in one year by selling abroad £4m of drugs intended for use in Britain.

The best way to make sure that the deaths at Stafford are not repeated is to scrap foundation trusts and restore the NHS to its original, 1940s socialist ideals, where the needs of patients are put before profits. And that also means bringing all ancillary services, such as cleaning and catering, back in-house.

End the annual energy profits charade

It's become an annual event. Britain's privatised energy companies announce enormous profits having failed to pass on the reduced price of gas to consumers.

Cue harsh criticism from Ofgem and expressions of shock and outrage from politicians and media commentators.

Meanwhile things carry on as before, with the privatised companies continuing to fleece the public.

The one thing that will put an end to this annual charade is the measure that none of our three major parties, still wedded to Thatcherite dogma, will even contemplate - the renationalisation of Britain's entire energy sector.

Public limited companies will always put the interests of shareholders before the interests of the general public. If we want the interests of the public to come before profits, we must have public ownership. It really is as simple as that.


Mr. Piccolo said...

I am actually kind of surprised by this. I would have thought that in a recession people would be cutting back on purchases of books, and instead turning to public libraries for their reading materials.

But I agree with everything you write, Mr. Clark. I think another unfortunate result of the decline of public libraries will be that less affluent people will be unable to have access to free books, meaning they will perhaps choose to read less. I think the decline of public libraries will also have a negative impact on students of all ages who may need access to large numbers of books but cannot pay to buy them.

Maybe I am crazy, but I honestly think the neoliberals want regular people to be as ignorant as possible, so they can't think for themselves and just accept whatever the mainstream talking heads have to say.

I think consumer education classes in schools are another example of this trend. In the past, people usually learned personal finance from their parents or simply by living their lives and gaining experience as they went along. I think the emphasis on "practical" consumer education and the downplaying of history, literature, and culture in general is a sign that we are no longer supposed to be citizens but just mindless consumers.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Mr Piccolo:

"Maybe I am crazy, but I honestly think the neoliberals want regular people to be as ignorant as possible, so they can't think for themselves and just accept whatever the mainstream talking heads have to say."

No, you're certainly not crazy: that is exactly what the neoliberals want. To turn the whole country -except the ruling 'elite' of course, into mindless consumers. The process is quite deliberate. Capital rules the show and capital only cares about one thing: profit maximisation.

all best,

Douglas said...

In my city of St. Paul, Minnesota, there is a handful of individuals who decide which books will be available in which library branches. These individuals are within the library bureaucracy, and accountable only to their superiors. The current arrangement is about as undemocratic as possible.

I would like for the library to say "This book is here because a certain number of people have checked it out over such-and-such a time," or "This book is here because it is recognized as important to this region," or "This book is here because it is a part of Western civilization that has stood the test of time."

I would like the process of adding and subtracting books to a library to be more democratic and involve social media more.

One last thing about libraries: Can you find a copy of "The Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie at your local library?

Neil Clark said...

Hi Douglas,
'Can you find a copy of "The Satantic Verses" by Salman Rushdie at your local library?'

I very much hope not! Please don't tell me that you're a fan of Rushdie. He's a neocon pin-up boy because of his attacks on Islam.

Nick said...

"Libraries gave us power" as the Manic Street Preachers once sang.

When you reduce everything to the "crude cash nexus" as modern capitalism does, of course libraries have to go along with every other public service eventually.

It all comes down to a simple question. Does running absolutely everything in the world at a profit equal progress?

Gregor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Douglas said...

Neil - I haven't read The Satanic Verses, (or anything else by Rushdie, for that matter) but I'm partial to books whose authors have death contracts taken out on them.

But I distracted you from my suggestions for libraries. Do you concur with them?

Gregor - I understand that only 5% of the UK population is Muslim now. But what % of the UK population was Muslim 30 years ago? Which group has more kids/woman, UK Muslims, or UK everybody-elses? What % of the UK population will be Muslim 30 years from now, if the trends of the past 30 years continue? Is there any reason why they shouldn't continue? I sincerely hope that Mark Steyn is wrong, but I don't have a snappy comeback to his idea.

neil craig said...

A lot of UK public libraries were founded by Andrew Carnegie - a billionaire who would have agreed with you about the value of their non-capitalist model. owever the failure of libraries seems to be because they don't seem to do book lending much now. As you point out the number of books are falling far faster than the number of libraries while the number of books in most bookshops is rising. Books seem to be a very minor expense compared to staff which is puting the cart before the horse.

This may be what is wromg withn the socialist model today. Not that it is inherently unworkable but that its link to government bureaucratic parasitism has made it so.

Anonymous said...

One thing that seriously hacks me off with libraries lately is the number of noisy kids on computers.

Libraries used to be oases of calm where you could go to read books. Now they all seem to have spent their budgets in the last few years getting in rows and rows of computers, all in the name of 'inclusiveness' and modernity.
How very new Labour!

The staff talk loudly to each other thus encouraging others to do the same.

I wonder if the secret plan is to destroy libraries by stealth by changing them gradually into "infotainment centers" where the proles can go only to be amused to death.

Anonymous said...

I think you're kind of missing the point here, Neil.
There was a time when 'ordinary' folks couldn't afford books - so they either had to do without them, or they had to borrow them from a library. Fine. But those days are gone now.

Nowadays 'ordinary' folks are becoming increasingly better off - so that they can now afford to buy their own fresh clean copy of any books that they want (or need) to read.

So where is the problem?

To prove the point, Neil, I bet you've got hundreds of books in your home, eh? (Even notwithstanding the 1000s in cash that you and your lady waste on smoking cigarettes each year!)