Private World

Maurice argues that the increasing tendency to separate out celebrities and CEOs from ‘ordinary members of the public’ not only entrenches inequality, but also has a detrimental effect on our democracy

It isn’t called the House of Commons for nothing.

Two stories, side by side in the Guardian of Saturday 13 May.  They are on page 20, so you have to dig a bit. But they speak volumes about the direction we are going today, globally speaking.

One, ‘The cost of inequality: security guards outnumber police in half the world’ (here’s the longer, on line version) describes how the global market for private security is booming, so that there are more private security guards than police in the US, the UK, China, Canada and Australia, among other countries. The sector is growing at about 6 percent a year.

The second story, ‘Private airport terminal lets rich watch other travellers suffer’ (again, here’s the online version) reveals that there is a new terminal in Los Angeles International Airport exclusively for the rich, complete with a screen at the entrance showing the overcrowding and chaos in the other part of LAX – the part used by those who can’t afford the extra three or four thousand dollars per trip that would get them into one of the spacious luxury facilities. This new terminal is to be called ‘Private Suite’.

Taken together, these stories speak of a direction of travel. Those who can afford it are increasingly separating themselves off from everyone else.  They are increasingly creating a parallel world in which to live, one in which they need not rely on public services, or even queue with other members of the public in private facilities such as airports.

‘Other members of the public’. Hold that thought.

These two stories – and there are plenty of other examples – indicate not just a change in travelling habits and security needs. They indicate a dangerous conceptual shift too. It is as if the wealthy are separating themselves from the public. They are creating a new, private world accessible only to those with sufficient purchasing power, separate from – indeed, to be protected from – members of the public. Ordinary members of the public are admitted only as security guards or hired servants.

The signal goes out: celebrities and CEOs have different needs from the rest of us. It would be awful to think of them having to stand in line with the ‘common three fifths’, in the old Ulster expression. If they do venture out in public, of course they must do so behind sunglasses and a discreet ring of bulky bodyguards. They must have separate facilities at airports, exclusive suites in hotels, discreet private clinics, tinted windows on their limousines. They, and their public, begin to expect it, begin to conceive of each other as belonging to two separate categories, such that different rules apply.

Gavin de Becker, who runs the Private Suite at LAX, rejects any suggestion that his venture symbolises inequality, pointing out, according to the Guardian’s report, that it costs taxpayers nothing, and generates income for the airport. “It’s all about the airport”, he is quoted as saying, before adding: “When you charter, you can buy your way out of the line”.

Out of the line. Out of the social norms whereby you and I stand before or behind one another in the queue depending not on which of us has the greater status or bank balance, but on which of us happened to show up first.

And contrary to Mr de Becker, this does come free of cost to taxpayers – or rather, that very notion betrays the core problem with this conceptual paradigm.

There are now two kinds of taxpayers. There are those who pay their taxes and rely on the common pool of resources the funds provide. And there are those who pay their taxes – sometimes large amounts, to be sure, in monetary terms – but do not need the public services thus funded because they have plenty of money left over to buy in better services from the private sector.

You get what you pay for, and if the wealthy can afford better services than the state can provide they will continue to pay for them – with or without an untroubled conscience. Perhaps some of those in the Private Suite at LAX, looking at the hubbub and frustration beamed in from the other terminal, feel bad about it. Perhaps they really do have to use a more private route for travelling because were they to try to walk through the public terminal they wouldn’t get anywhere for the paparazzi and selfie-hunters. According to Mr de Becker, though, only a tenth of those using his Private Suite are ‘celebrities’, the rest consisting of members of the corporate elite, who may think they need ‘privacy’ to get on with their business. Which is none of ours.

This divergence between the public and the other, private world (or, perhaps better, Private World), inevitably institutionalises inequality, of course; but it also erodes democracy. People come to accept a two-level society. They are told that there is no alternative, that calling for first class public services for all not only risks alienating the ‘wealth-creators’, upsetting the markets and so on, but that it is just a symptom of class-envy. These poor rich people, we are told, carry the lion’s share of the ‘tax burden’ (as it is inevitably described). And now we, ordinary members of the public, have the gall to criticise them for not paying enough? Well of course if you do that you are not an ‘ordinary member of the public’ at all; you are one of the ‘hard left’ (as it is inevitably described), or one of their dupes.

No: ‘ordinary members of the public’ – at least according to the Daily Mail, UKIP and now the Conservatives – are those hard-working-families who are fed up with their wages being undercut by immigrants (not by union-busting multi-nationals, mind you), and who think businesses would be freed up to give them better jobs if it weren’t for all the red tape imposed by foreigners in Brussels, or who think there isn’t the money to put into public services because ‘scroungers’ have bled the state dry, benefits were too ‘generous’, and so on.

Now it is true that the Labour Party spent too long being ‘relaxed about people getting filthy rich’ (whether or not they paid their taxes), and it’s true that many of the liberal elite have a lot to learn about working class people. But it is astonishing that a party (the Tories) that spent decades selling off everything the British people owned in common, trying to downgrade public services, and offering all the help it could to those intent on building an offshore, non-dom, hyper-wealthy, first class Private World can now (suddenly) present itself as the party of the patriotic working classes without being laughed off the stage. How have they got away with it?

Well, perhaps because far too many of us believed them when they said Private World was none of our business, not a public matter, not something that concerned us. It has a certain plausibility, after all. Which of us wants the state coming nosing into our private affairs? Who among us would not take the first class treatment available in Private World if we got the chance?

But there’s the rub. Only the top 1 percent get the chance. Only they have the money both to pay their taxes (albeit keeping them to a minimum) with enough left over to buy themselves out of the public sphere – or at least to try to.

Because the separation is, in a sense, an illusion. You may have built a fence and a big security gate, but you have done it within the public realm. You have been able to do it not because you have enough private security guards to defend it, but because successive governments have recognised your right to do so, have issued the appropriate permits, cleared the development with the local authorities, have policed the whole thing from start to finish. With public police.

Private World, let us be clear, is a derivative of the public realm; it is a ‘dependency’, to use the old colonial-era term. It could not take place outside the legal and institutional framework provided by the public realm, even if it presents itself as being outside.

The trick is to make people think it is the other way round – that the public realm comes about when ‘the State’ (that monster!) takes away chunks of my private property.

‘The State’ is presented in this way, though, is just as much an illusion as Private World. Indeed it is presented as some meddling external bureaucracy determined to interfere with the way I want to run my life and spend my own money precisely in order to force public and private apart.

Rather, ‘the State’, or for that matter, the economy,  is not some external entity; it is just something that we do, collectively.  If it is to be democratic, it is something we need to do in common – because in a democracy we are all commoners.

We need to stop thinking on the basis of separate realms, and start thinking about the dynamics of a single system that throws these two realms up as apparently separate. We need to look at the gearing, too much of which is currently pointed vertically, separating people out into ‘the public’ on the one hand, and the population of Private World on the other – that half-a-percent or so of the population consisting of celebrities and CEOs, who seem to inhabit a ‘higher sphere’.

In the end, though, they too are members of the public. Nothing more. But nothing less.

Maurice Macartney

15 May 2017