Who funds the think tanks?

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A new report shows how ‘highly opaque and deceptive’ methods are used to shape public perception, writes Tony McKenna.

The current political landscape is fraught, treacherous and more difficult than ever to navigate. The EU referendum in 2016 saw the Leave vote carry the day, but the decision to 'Brexit' has created in its wake a bitter and on-going division within Britain. The current government have done little to balm the divide. Its preparations for the Leave vote were almost non-existent. When British PM Theresa May's cabinet was pushed to act by an increasingly frantic public, it endeavoured to trigger the exit process without disclosing its strategy or putting it to a vote in the Commons. Such lack of accountability only generated further uproar. May’s oblique manoeuvring ran aground on a High Court ruling which forced the government to debate the issue, causing the Prime Minister herself to become more cautious when she declared a need for ‘full and transparent’ parliamentary scrutiny.

More caution and accountability is welcome, but the problem with transparency does not begin at the highest echelons of the government. It is a broader issue which often works from the grassroots up. Think tanks help transmit a multitude of voices – from professionals, activists, and businesspeople, to academics on the ground – channeling information upward through the state bureaucracy and acting as an important source for the formation of law. But how do these bodies choose which of those voices to listen to? And what groups stand behind the think tanks themselves? What material interests underpin their funding? These questions are important because in the world of policy advisement, think tanks are presented as politically independent. This quality elevates them to the status of the rare and sought after magical unicorn in civil arena. Yet, reality is often more complex.

The organization Transparify tackled this problem in its new report on the funding of UK think tanks, launched this week. The report made it clear from the outset that think tanks are becoming increasingly opaque. There was only one think tank – The Royal United Services Institute – which actually improved the level of its disclosure from the previous year, grouping its donors in coherent financial categories and permitting the public to have a clear idea of who supports its work. Worryingly, however, Transparify has discovered a tendency toward greater opacity with seven major think tanks resorting to ‘highly opaque and deceptive’ methods of veiling their root sources of funding. This is up from four institutions who resorted to similar tactics in the year before. According to Transparify the seven think tanks ‘take money from behind closed doors…over £22 million of dark money’ and are thereby able to ‘collectively employ over 200 people in their quest to shape public debates and influence policies.’

Why the need for such Byzantine secrecy on the part of these super trusts? The report provides some of the answers. One of the groups in question, the Adam Smith Institute, involves a research trust which is allied to a commercial consulting company (Adam Smith International LTD). The Institute’s commercial links are increasingly evinced in the tone and tenor of its research which the trust produces and which seems anything but dispassionate and objective. For example, this year the Institute went on a media offensive disparaging the claims of research conducted by Oxfam showing how the ‘world's eight richest people have the same wealth as the poorer half of the globe’s population.’

The Adam Smith Institute’s ‘findings’ more and more feed into a clearly delineated ideological assumption – one which the Institute stated openly in a 2015 study: ‘[T]he private sector, rightfully driven by the profit motive, tempered by tolerance for risk, rewards innovation.’ Such a statement illustrates the trust’s commercial basis, for as the Transparify report notes, ‘Adam Smith International reported a turnover of over £130 million, with an operating profit of nearly £17 million’. It is no surprise that the AS Institute holds a natural affinity with companies in the private sector, cultivates strong financial connections with them; consequentially, much of the information it issues is almost inevitably partisan. In 2013 the Observer newspaper revealed that the Institute had taken ‘3 per cent of its funding…from tobacco firms’, so one does not have to look deep to find the impetus for the Adam Smith Institute’s audacious claim, last year, that big tobacco companies like Philip Morris International were the ‘true public health heroes’ for having decided to augment their profits with a new range of e-cigarette products.

Perhaps the Institute’s namesake, the great political economist whose legacy they have so shamelessly bowdlerized, would have appreciated the irony of the ‘invisible hand’ of big tobacco working from behind the scenes to mysteriously effect its own ends. But the Adam Smith Institute is not the only think tank to have been infiltrated by cigarette companies, indeed according to the watchdog organization TobaccoTactics ‘the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has in the past regularly received substantial amounts of money from tobacco companies, and may continue to do so.’ The organization Centre for Policy Studies also has the dubious honour of membership of this elite coterie of tobacco financed organizations who claim to act in the public interest – often on the basis of tax exempt charity status.

Sometimes, however, the subversive influence strays beyond the level of private interest into the realm of national-state actors. One of the seven think tanks the Transparify report focuses on is the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This venerable body has ‘secretly taken at least £25 million from the oil-rich Gulf monarchy Bahrain over the course of several years’, the same Bahrain which is now enthusiastically engaged in the wholesale massacre of its own citizens – courtesy of security aid packages provided by the British government. Of course, as the advocacy organization Bahrain Watch notes, by allying itself with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Bahrain government is able to cultivate an image of itself ‘as modern, liberal and business friendly’.

Transparify’s new report arrives at an opportune time. In the chaos of Brexit, it seems Britain's Conservative government is increasingly inclined to genuflect before the Trump administration, to turn the UK into a deregulated low-tax state, a haven for large capital investment – in order to gain an advantage over its former EU allies. Such strategies will no doubt be girded by ‘objective’ public service reports issued from the likes of the Adam Smith Institute. It is, therefore, worth scrutinising the veiled interests which underlie such information.

Tony McKenna’s work has been featured by The Huffington Post, New Statesman, The Progressive, The United Nations, ABC Australia, New Humanist, In These Times, Open Democracy, Ceasefire Magazine, Adbusters and many others. His latest book – a biography of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin – is available now.

The Rojava experiment

Flag of Kurdistan

The Kurdistan flag. Jan Sefti under a Creative Commons Licence

Follow the river Tigris as it threads through the snow-capped Taurus mountains, as it spills into the Turkish lowlands before flowing hundreds of miles thereafter – and you will eventually reach the border with Syria.

It’s at this juncture that you’ll find one of the most dynamic and precious experiments in freedom and self-determination taking place today.

In the region of West Kurdistan – or Rojava – there exists a remarkable social space where a vibrant political movement has swept through the diverse populations living there, throwing up new forms of political organization, and uniting in its remit Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmen and Chechens.

Rojava now operates a form of a communalism. All households participate in assemblies which, in turn, elect delegates responsive to their needs; political power flows from the bottom upward through a series of graduations: the neighbourhood, the district, the city, and the canton.

It is true that the three cantons which make up the territory are overseen by the PVD – an organization with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a party which was the focal point of Kurdish radical and national resistance for the decades where it operated clandestinely and from the shadows.

But the real precedent for what is happening in Rojava has not been set by the fragmented splinter-groups of Kurdish nationalism and the parties from above, but instead by events with a far older historical pedigree.

If anything, the groundswell of democracy in Western Kurdistan resembles the polis of the ancient Athenian democracy (minus the slaves and disenfranchized women) – or, many centuries later, the heroic Paris commune which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about with such sweeping, tragic acuity.

And, just like the commune, the grassroots democracy of Rojava is besieged from all sides, menaced by a series of hostile forces which threaten its destruction.

After the implosions of both Iraq and Syria, the vicious strains of Islamic fundamentalism they have unleashed are locked in combat with Rojava’s fighters on the borders; at the same time, the area remains buffeted by Assad’s forces, while dealing with the unremitting hostility from a Turkey which has enforced a series of trade embargoes against it.

At this point, however, the fundamentalist threat presented by the jihadists of IS and other groups is clearly the most perilous.

It is a threat which has been met by fire and barely suppressed fury, especially on the part of the female Rojava fighters who make up a high number of the civil protection units.  

The fact that Rojava’s political forms are rooted in the democratic life of the people has led to a flowering of reform which has swept away many of the political mechanisms which underlined more traditional forms of misogyny.

So, for instance, it is now no longer possible for a man to marry more than one woman, or for his input and testimony in judicial process to count for double that of his female counterpart.

The women of Rojava seek to protect these freedoms – and Rojava’s territory – with a ferocious courage thrown into relief by the kind of hell which awaits them in the event of capture by the representatives of the medieval savagery they are warring against.

A fighter for the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) on the frontline conveys the gravity of the situation in the simplest, starkest of terms:

‘We all have our orders to keep a bullet and a grenade in a special pocket on us. We can never become captives of Daesh [IS].’

Under these conditions, then, Rojava’s experiment with democracy seems all the more remarkable.

But it also begs the question – why now?

Kurdistan, itself a fragmented territory with regions in Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, existed as an independent state for a short sliver of time from 1920-23, though it was swiftly carved up into disparate populations and territories which came to form dislocated minorities in larger and often brutally repressive nations.

Certainly, it is this history of repression which has fanned the flames of ethno-nationalism on the part of Kurdish populations.

But though it has increased the political impetus for the creation of a Kurdish nation, it has also provoked a counter-tendency: rejecting Kurdish ultra-nationalism.

Kurdish populations are historically more attuned to the dangers of the nationalist projects which emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. These projects were more often than not facilitated by Western imperial powers, which emphasized and promoted one ethnicity at the expense of others in order to secure a national framework.

All of which brings us back to Rojava. Perhaps because it is just one parcel of Kurdish territory and because the Kurds there have a very different political and ideological make-up from those living elsewhere, like Iraq, the possibility of creating a national state would always be fraught with the dangers of repression and even ethnic cleansing.

To counter this, Rojava’s constitution – its ‘social contract’ – goes out of its way to reject Kurdish nationalism and even nationalism per se: ‘The autonomous regions of democratic administration do not recognize the concept of the nation state.’

In the same vein, it would be wrong to describe the Rojava administration as Kurdish in the first place; rather, it’s a political network of all the diffuse identities and religions which happen to persist in the region of Western Kurdistan.

In other words, the character of the democracy which is being forged against a backdrop of civil war and invasion has assumed the form of a movement from below, precisely as a response to Kurdish history and the national question, and in light of the ongoing fragmentation of nations like Iraq and Syria.

It is hard to tell whether, given the terrible nature of the forces which are arrayed against it, the Rojava experiment can or will survive. But it is not only precious for the lives of the people who have fought for it – but also, perhaps, because it provides the hope of a way out, a form of organization and life which might transcend the interminable and bitter rhythms of sectarian conflict.

Tony McKenna has previously written for New Internationalist, ABC Australia, The Huffington Post, New Statesman and others. His first book, Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective, is available from Macmillan in August


Britain’s draft Modern Slavery Bill does not go far enough

Office cleaner

Sean Mulgrew under a Creative Commons Licence

Imagine being legally employed but having next to no rights. Being unable to enjoy some of the most fundamental benefits of normal work practices – like having a cap put on the amount of hours you can be made to work in a given week, or a limit on the hours you have to put in at night. Imagine your employer doesn’t have to give you adequate breaks in accordance with health and safety guidelines. Imagine enduring a miserable and debilitating work-life with the following proviso: you are tied to your job and if, at any point, you attempt to escape by applying to work somewhere else, somewhere better – you are seen to have committed a criminal act which is punishable by the state.

If all of that has a distinctly Draconian flavour – the kind of crushing immiseration you might expect to encounter in the pages of 1984 rather than a modern liberal democracy – you might be surprised to know that a section of the work force in Britain today is trapped in exactly this type of situation. Overseas domestic workers – from the Middle East, Asia and Africa in the main – enter Britain on a specific kind of visa contract that which renders them vulnerable to a host of abuses.

A report by Human Rights Watch tallies these in a depressing litany of exploitation, peppered by first-hand accounts of workers made to work for 18 hours a day without breaks, or workers locked in the house and surviving on scraps of leftover food, or forbidden from owning mobile phones and prevented from making contact with the outside world.

The situation, though, is doubly paradoxical. In late 2013 the coalition government proposed a welcome draft bill that would seek to clamp down on modern forms of slavery and forced labour, with a special emphasis on human-trafficking. The bill, however, makes no provision for the situation of domestic labourers – while at the same time the parliamentary legislation which does reference them has been anything but kind during recent years.

In April 2012, for instance, the same British government now so keen to advertise its anti-slavery credentials passed a bill which eliminated the right of migrant domestic labourers to change jobs – by implementing the notorious ‘tied visa’. And in 2011 Britain was one of the few states not to vote for an international treaty designed to ensure that workers in the domestic sphere enjoy the same rights as those elsewhere.

In some ways, restricting the freedom of labour militates against the flexibility and flux that free market economics is supposed to encourage and which, it is said, provides a cornerstone of modern conservatism. The legal procedures which have helped tie these domestic labourers to unmitigated servitude have much in common with the Kafala system which operates in many Gulf states: a system which denies employees the opportunity to leave their job, and, in some cases, the country itself. And it seems more than just rich coincidence that the conservative capitulation before more archaic forms of labour practice has taken place at a time when capital flows between the Gulf states and Britain are reaching ‘epic proportions’ – when the British government itself is desperate to solidify economic ties abroad in light of the ongoing economic crisis.

Wealth-saturated Saudi Arabia has remained a client of particular interest, with 349 British companies operating inside its borders; at the same time, back in Britain, newspapers are occasionally punctuated by a story of brutal grotesquery when an endemic culture of abuse perpetrated by a wealthy élite toward its servants suddenly attains visible and murderous dimensions.

But perhaps the coalition is unable to act decisively, paralysed as it has been by the sheer venom of the anti-immigrant rhetoric it has unleashed. Overseas domestic labourers are estimated to come into the country in modest numbers (around 15,000 each year) and the vast majority of these will return with their employers; nevertheless, the blustery, back-bench brigadiers who form the bedrock of suspicion and xenophobia (which the conservative party rather whimsically describes as its ‘traditional’ base) is convinced that to grant these foreign workers some level of humanity would be the inevitable prelude to a collective and spontaneous ‘running away’ – an exodus which would, no doubt, see immigration levels rise and the benefits system put under an intolerable duress.

But ‘running away’, as journalist Alastair Sloan points out, ‘is not abuse of the visa system. This is what most would simply call changing jobs.’ And who wouldn’t want to change jobs, if your working conditions left you especially vulnerable to economic, physical and even sexual abuse? To prevent people from exercising this freedom is more than an indifferent and prosaic bureaucratic act. It is a violation of right.

Tony Mckenna is a writer based in the UK. His work has been featured by The Huffington Post, New Statesman, ABC Australia, The United Nations, The Progressive, New Humanist, Adbusters, In These Times, and others.

Death, justice and the big questions

Sometimes a crime is so horrific as to produce a seismic effect. It sends rippling across our collective consciousness the singular demand – for justice to be served by removing the criminal from the world of the living.

The Breivik case involves just such a crime. As the TV stations reeled out the seemingly never-ending series of faces, most of them children or young adults, it was impossible not to be struck by their aura of youth. They resonate as individuals stood on the cusp of the future, and morbid though it may be, it is hard not to wonder who they may have become, or what they would have gone on to achieve.

In light of this, the reaction of Norway’s president to the Breivik trial is all the more remarkable. Whereas many heads of state might have used the national mood of shock and outrage as an opportunity to grandstand, Jen Stoltenberg’s reaction was measured, motivated by a deep melancholia rather than the incendiary desire for revenge. He did not clamour for the death penalty, in fact he didn’t even call for the toughening of criminal law more broadly, rather he suggested the reverse, urging people toward ‘more democracy, more openness’.

Last month, and in response to the Breivik trial, the BBC programme The Big Questions held a death penalty debate. The anti-capital punishment brigade went to work straight away quickly deploying their flagship argument, highlighting the reason the penalty was abolished in the UK in the first place i.e. the hanging of the innocent and mentally-challenged teenager Derek Bentley.

Moreover, they stipulated, such miscarriages of justice occur with alarming regularity in the areas of the world where the death penalty is still in force. Their argument was fortified in a provocative and unexpected manner, for they had in their number one Michael O’Brien who himself spent 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The 11 years is shocking in itself, but the awareness that the person you were watching in real time would now be in the ground had not the capital legislation been repealed was what really provoked a shudder. All at once the discussion seemed to move beyond the to and fro of intellectual point scoring. Imbued with an ominous gravitas, the whole theme suddenly became ‘real’.

It is a credit to the conservative journalist Peter Hitchens that he was able to confront head on the controversy of innocent lives lost due to capital punishment. Hitchens did not deny that a sizeable proportion of people had lost their lives this way nor did he attempt to argue future tweaking of the justice system would necessarily ameliorate such terrible outcomes (though he suggested such avenues should be explored).

In fact Hitchens claimed something more fundamental. Only a naive, unadulterated pacifism would fail to acknowledge that the ability for a given society to sustain goes hand in hand with certain unpalatable concessions. The struggle against the Nazis, for example, presupposed the wilful bombing and destruction of large swathes of civilian populations: the ‘necessity’ for such killing flowed inexorably from the perilous nature of the historical situation.

On a smaller scale, Hitchens suggested, this is exactly what the issue of the death penalty boils down to. The argument about capital punishment cannot be resolved by recourse to some abstract moral principle but must be derived from the living reality. According to Hitchens, the chaotic and fragmented nature of the modern world requires the death-deterrent in order that the principle of life remain sacrosanct: the ultimate crime must as well be limited by the ultimate punishment.

Such po-faced utilitarianism might be more persuasive if it wasn’t for the fact that, in the United States at least, the majority of criminologists simply don’t believe that the death penalty reduces the murder rate. In the US it is the South which is responsible for 80 per cent of executions yet the same region also experiences the highest murder rate.

But there is a problem with Hitchens’s argument which reaches beyond the statistics.

The idea that the more punitive the state is, the more it lowers the levels of crime in society misses something important. The prison system, however brutal and ineffective, still has the result of binding the social individual to the state – a prolonged existence in which the one continues to stand in relation to the other.

In fact some argue the relation of the individual to the state is constitutive of society itself. And in severing that relation – say organizations such as Amnesty International – the state is not only brutalizing a criminal, but is ‘brutalizing’ society therein. Such a state is increasingly experienced as a power set against society and because of this, its organic connection with the social whole is inexorably weakened.

The state which employs the death penalty, therefore, is also one which has lost a point of contact with its citizenry. As a result the ability of the judicial power to empathize with or even comprehend those it comes into contact with is inevitably lessened. For this reason it is not entirely accidental that the death penalty is still used against people who have the mental age of a child.

And this is why Jen Stoltenberg and his liberal demand for ‘more democracy, more openness’ infers something more than an abstract and idealist principle. Such humanitarianism has an eminently practical character too in as much as it allows a higher level of social cohesion, ultimately setting the basis for less crime, not more.

Tony writes about cultural and political issues from a left standpoint, and regularly contributes to The Huffington Post.