Bristol PLC wins Rockefeller franchise

Since being sworn in as the first elected Mayor of Bristol in November 2012, George Ferguson has had a difficult tightrope to walk. At a moment when running local capitalism means enforcing cuts on public services, he has shown himself adept at distracting public attention from the elephant in the room – the ¬£90m budget cuts being dutifully implemented by Bristol City Council under his stewardship – by associating himself with various progressive-sounding gimmicks (traffic-free days, lots of new cycle paths, free Sunday parking etc.), combined with much vague talk about “future-proofing” the city from, variously, transport collapse, energy insecurity, flood, pestilence and riot. This kind of smoke and mirrors distraction politics has impressed some woolly minded liberals, but is being met with growing anger by those with daily experience of collapsing public services and benefit cuts.

One justification that has been offered for having an elected mayor is that a mayor elected directly by the citizens on a four-year term of office is better placed than others to take the long view of the city’s needs, raising his eyes above immediate mundane concerns (like day centres closing and food banks opening) to dizzying new development horizons. Some kid themselves that Ferguson’s disaffiliation from any party allegiance (he was formerly LibDem) qualify him to represent Bristol as a whole. His allegiance to capitalism, however, is not in doubt.

The reality is that, with every new privatisation or closure, there is in fact less and less possibility of any real democratic accountability or integrated planning, less and less chance that long-term decisions about the city’s future can be made in anything resembling an informed and democratic fashion.

The mayor smoothes over this inconvenient fact by dressing up an unfortunate addiction to networking and schmoozing as a new and improved form of democracy, telling us in a speech last November that he has “talked and listened to people, day after day, week after week – in the streets, at face-to-face Q&A sessions, on the web, and on air. Wherever people want to talk – I have made myself as accessible as possible in a city of nearly half a million people. It’s fair to say that nearly everyone will know someone who has met me or spoken to me.”

Some conversations however count more than others. On 4 March this year, the mayor celebrated Bristol’s success in its bid to feature in the Rockefeller Foundation’s “Hundred Resilient Cities” scheme by hosting a workshop event aimed at bringing together local government, the “third sector” and infrastructure companies to talk about “resilience” and “partnership”. When Ferguson talks about “partnership”, he is generally referring to partnership between nominally accountable public institutions, special interest campaign groups, NGOs and charities, and (most crucially) the private sector. Stripped of the rhetoric, all that is really on offer is a regurgitation of the Big Society, with private enterprise hogging centre stage, the council abdicating its public responsibilities and public-spirited volunteers scrambling to fill the gaps.

The mayor’s ambition is not cramped within the confines of Bristol alone. In his November speech he promised to “strengthen partnership working and governance across the Bristol-Bath city-region, working with our neighbouring authorities and the Local Enterprise Partnership.”

How all this double-talk works out in practice was documented in a recent newsletter item published by the Bristol branch of Unite Community. Recalling that Ferguson had overridden a proposal that there be a blanket ban on evictions arising from non-payment of the infamous Bedroom Tax, the article records that on 1 March the mayor nevertheless had the gall to take part in “a sponsored sleep¬≠out to raise awareness of homelessness. With him were 150 people fundraising for night shelters and other services for homeless people provided by secular and church organisations.”

Ten days later, the author notes that the rough-sleeping mayor was attending Europe’s top property fair in Cannes, there with the “Invest in Bristol and Bath” team “to impress the mega rich elite to put their money into business and property in Bristol.” As he put it himself, ” I discover I’m the most travelled UK mayor – even more than Boris – but a good deal more economically! In any case small beer where there are such big gains to be had.” When and how these big gains will become apparent to the beleaguered general citizenry of Bristol remains for the moment a mystery.

Rockefeller: How to buy friends and influence people

If all goes Ferguson’s way and the Rockefeller Foundation is sufficiently impressed by Bristol’s progress towards “resilience”, there is a glittering prize to be won. Overall, the Foundation promises to make $100 million available globally, to be divvied up between the 100 chosen “resilient cities”. The cash is to “support the cities in hiring ‘Chief Resilience Officers’ and creating a global information-sharing network.” The (unelected) CRO for Bristol, whoever he or she may be, will be a founding member of “a long-lasting global community of practice around urban resilience” who will help “shape how the network evolves over time.”

So what’s in it for the Rockefellers? The Rockefeller Foundation, funded from the family’s massive oil and banking profits, has a well-documented history of “philanthropic” ventures by which the unelected Rockefeller dynasty has long sought to shape “democratic” society in its own image, creating a social and economic environment within which capitalism may flourish undisturbed. This is not a new game for the family.

An article by James F. Tracy posted on the Global Research website notes that “The Rockefeller Foundation was the principal source for funding public opinion and psychological warfare research between the late 1930s and the end of World War Two. With limited government and corporate interest or support of propaganda-related studies, most of the money for such research came from this powerful organization that recognised the importance of ascertaining and steering public opinion in the immediate pre-war years.” (“Early ‘Psychological Warfare’ Research and the Rockefeller Foundation”, 29 April 2012)

In the early 1940s Nelson Rockefeller assisted George Gallup in setting up American Social Surveys, a non-profit outfit dedicated to testing out and shaping public opinion in South America. Rockefeller planned to expand his oil and banking interests in the region, at the historical juncture when the Anglo-French model of direct colonial occupation was in the process of being supplanted by the US strategy of indirect neo-colonial control. Meanwhile the CIA was channelling cash through the Rockefeller Foundation to fund the Research Council at Princeton so that it could “carry out projects for the Psychological Warfare Branch of Military Intelligence in North Africa, the Department of State on US attitudes toward foreign affairs, and the Office of Strategic Services on public opinion in Germany.” (ibid)

With the onset of the Cold War the Research Council passed seamlessly into its new task of “measuring public opinion in France, Holland and Italy to anticipate and quash popular political and social movements.” (ibid) In 1948 the Rockefeller Foundation declared that ” An understanding of communication and attitude change is important to our educational system, to those who lead great organisations, and to those who are concerned with political opinion and behaviour.” (ibid) In 1954, the Foundation gave a Yale psychologist, Carl Hoyland, a $200,000 grant to fund his attitude change and persuasion studies, and in 1955 Nelson himself acted as psychological warfare consultant to Eisenhower. In the 1960s the Foundation was in close collaboration with the CIA when the agency was busy funding the anti-communist “Congress for Cultural Freedom” . In the 1970s and ’80s Foundation largesse went to social scientists researching international security issues, including Soviet foreign policy and behaviour. These hand-picked scholars were not all from academia, but included people from the government and the military.

Telling the tale

And now that capitalism is visibly failing, imperialist crisis is impoverishing millions and the world plunges on from one war into another, the Foundation has a new buzz word to distract us all with: Resilience!

The list of top tips for Chief Resilience Officers supplied by the Foundation includes some real gems, one of which sums up Mayor Ferguson’s own peculiar talents to a tee.

“Storytelling and other forms of communication will be critical for driving the resilience conversation in the city and engaging stakeholder support.” If it’s spinning a yarn you’re after, George is surely your man. But it had better be a good one, though, if he is right about Bristolians being independent-minded people who like to do things their own way. Neither the reform “riots” of 1831 nor the St Paul’s uprising of 1980 are forgotten in this city.