What’s the connection between John le Carré’s gripping new novel A Delicate Truth and Michael Sandel’s marvellously thought-provoking What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets?
Well apart from the fact that they both made my summer reading list and ended up being two of the best books I’ve read in a long time, you might think that they don’t have a great deal in common. But to my mind they both, in their very different ways, promulgate essentially the same argument.
That argument is that money (and the love of it) has infiltrated areas of our common, civic and public life that just a few decades ago appeared sacrosanct, and we should all be gravely concerned by this. Sandel describes it as shifting from having a market economy to being a market society. He cites a catalogue of examples of so-called market solutions being implemented and begs the question of whether these are in fact eroding the ethical and moral underpinnings of a civilised society.
Is it right for lobbyists on Capitol Hill to pay homeless people to stand in line for them so that they can attend congressional hearings? What about for an airline to pay people to use their foreheads as advertising billboards? And what about paying someone to get you a ticket to a supposedly free public Shakespeare festival? Or what about the increasingly prevalent practice of the wealthy paying to keep themselves as separate as possible from the hoi polloi – be it by living in gated communities, or watching Sandel’s beloved baseball from the safety of one of the relatively newly erected corporate skyboxes? Or even (in one prison in Santa Ana, California), paying for an upgrade to a clean, quiet private cell away from other non-paying prisoners?
Le Carré is much less placid. His book is a brilliant excoriating critique of what he calls the ‘corporatisation’ of war, intelligence (in the espionage sense) and arguably even the rule of law. Without wanting to give too much away, the story revolves around a botched operation dreamt up by the heads of a private company that trades in supposedly first-rate intelligence and military interventions, who succeed in selling their dodgy wares to a rather easily swayed minister at the Foreign Office in the dying days of the New Labour government. Most of the book focuses on the struggle between a few good men who want to blow the whistle on the operation and the powers that be, who wish to cover the whole thing up. Seemingly, the wealthy private contractors have captured the arms of the state completely and are able even to shape the legal system to protect themselves.
Which brings me back to the title of this post. As I thought about these two books and the arguments at their core, a word that I don’t think I’ve either seen or heard since I was seventeen and studying the French Revolution at school suddenly popped into my head. It’s a word that captures better than any other I can think of what it is that Sandel and le Carré are so worried about: venality.
Venality is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as being ‘the quality or fact of being for sale.’ As this graph (created using my new favourite toy Google Ngrams again) shows, venality as a concept reached its apotheosis in the two decades leading up to the French Revolution of 1789 and has gradually fallen out of favour since then (flat-lining for most of the last hundred years). Whether this reflects a decline in venal behaviour is debatable, but irrespective of how closely the prominence of venality in public discourse mirrors reality, the word and its usage matters. I’m not saying that the French Revolution was solely caused by a sudden surge in the volume of writing about the venality of the ancien régime, but the correlation is certainly more than a coincidence.
Venality, it has been proven time and again, undermines the legitimacy of any regime – think not only of Louis XVI’s France but also early sixteenth century Catholicism and the widespread practice of selling Indulgences, the backlash against which launched the Protestant Reformation. And today as well, venality, whether or not we call it that, is doing much to undermine the legitimacy of government. It’s one of the root causes of our current political apathy: the sense that moneyed interests will win regardless breeds despondency.
Venality is the common thread that underpins so many of the most damaging political stories of our day. It’s what the party funding debate is about; it’s why so many people are concerned by the scale of the lobbying industry, particularly when it represents industries whose pockets are deep, like financial services or arms manufacturers; it lurks behind every story of a screw up by private companies that have won lucrative public contracts, where we’re left wondering how they got the contract in the first place. It’s the omnipresent, yet unspoken theme that defines our current political malaise. And if you don’t believe me that it’s omnipresent just look at this story from today’s Independent.
So what are we going to do about it? And are we on the brink of another revolutionary moment on the scale of 1517 or 1789? Well, either way, whether your goal is reform or revolution, I think we should start by calling a spade a spade and rehabilitating venality as a popular concept. The first step towards fixing the problem is naming it.