'Chumocracy' and Liberal Democracy


        Recently, one has not been able to escape the ‘new’ term that is being used to describe the nature and character of governance in the UK under Boris Johnson. This term is ‘Chumocracy’ – literally, rule by friends or pals [‘Chum-’ meaning ‘friend’, and ‘-ocracy’, from the Greek term κρατος, meaning ‘rule’]. This has come to the fore of political discussion after a number of journalists (of all political stripes) have uncovered that the government circumnavigated due process by awarding public contracts and employment opportunities without a competitive tendering process during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately bestowing £1.5 billion worth of contracts to companies with direct connections to government officials and the Conservative Party. [1] Indeed, the Conservative Party are familiar to such allegations. The origins of the contemporary use of the term stems from critique by detractors towards David Cameron and the tight clique he kept around him of personal, school, and university friends that reputedly took most government decisions and were kept informed of government policy to be. [2] Personally, with the mere resonance of the term ‘chumocracy’, my mind is drawn back to the Cameron era and the sale of Royal Mail shares well below their market value to a hedge fund owned by the Best Man of the then Chancellor of The Exchequer, George Osbourne. Thus, even though the term may be banded around today as a ‘new’ characterisation of the conduct by government office holders, it is not a novel classification.

But, really, the question is whether or not the invention of a term for this kind of rule was necessary. Do we already hold a signifier for this phenomenon? Across the wealth of her work, one of the most common themes that Hannah Arendt discusses is the relationship between language and understanding. [3] Language is imperative to ‘the political’. Without accurate language to sharply bring into being the phenomena of our collective existence it becomes an almost impossible task to (a) ‘understand’, thus (b) ‘judge’, and resultingly, (c) ‘act’, and action is the stuff of politics itself. The outcome of understanding is the location of meaning, which arises out of interpreting the phenomena of our common world with an approach characterised by its predilection for conceptual nuance and razor-sharp inquiry – a feat that has become all the more difficult in the mass-society and mass-politics of the modern world. [4] Using language incorrectly muddies our understanding. This occurs when we use terms interchangeably, like ‘fascism’, ‘totalitarianism’, ‘tyranny’, or ‘authoritarianism’, watering down our firm grasp of each of them with every mis-use. Nonetheless, the same applies to creating language where there is already language to signify a phenomenon, i.e. the proper term becomes equally dissolved in potency to provide foundational meaning.

‘Chumocracy’ may indeed be one of these terms. If the term is used to signal a system in which ‘the few’ rule for their favour, exploiting the state-apparatus for their own ends, we know what this is – this is not ‘chumocracy’, this is Oligarchy (pace Aristotle). Now, it might be a firmly cynical step to claim that the UK is an oligarchy – this is not my point. My point is to suggest that when government officials act in the interest of their social group, and use to the state to that end, even within the boundaries and purview of a democratic system, than this is to flirt with oligarchical tendencies, perhaps even with state-backed oligopoly. This is not a new phenomenon, sadly. In his ‘Demons of Liberal Democracy’, Adrian Pabst exposes the manner in which liberal democracy has opened itself to a transformation into its illiberal counterpart. Here, Pabst devotes an entire chapter to discussing how the vestiges of Oligarchy have slowly oozed into the norms of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy, we can now observe, is compatible and complicit with the concentration of wealth and power at the expense of due processes to encourage competition and the common good, maintaining the illusion of open, competitive markets that generate prosperity. [5]

The question that I would like to ask is if this illusion is good enough? Does it provide our citizen-body a just sense of what it is due? Perhaps a measured response to stop such democratic backsliding would through a legislative route, i.e. introducing new legislation to make ‘chumocratic’ activity illegal in all forms. However, there are two issues with this. The first is that the government’s defence would concern swift action – that the government needed to act quickly in the circumstances and that this overruled the requirement to uphold due process. Perhaps this is an argument, but it does beg a wider question, namely, are limits on government capabilities less important than the speed of response in certain scenarios, and can this be legally abused? The second is that those who would be responsible for passing legislation are those who, despite ideologically aligning themselves to rolling back handouts and encouraging competition, benefit from the status-quo. Thus, maybe even the legislative emphasis often associated with liberal democracy cannot save itself from decay. In which case we need to think before we act, and that requires a sharp use and control of language. In the meantime, it appears that government officials can in full sight utilise their position for their own benefit, or at least the benefit of their ‘chums’. However, I shall repeat my question – is this good enough?

[1] David Conn, et.al. (15th November 2020) ‘'Chumocracy': how Covid revealed the new shape of the Tory establishment’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/15/chumocracy-covid-revealed-shape-tory-establishment; Gabriel Pogrund and Tom Calver (15th November 2020) ‘Chumocracy first in line as ministers splash COVID cash, The Sunday Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/chumocracy-first-in-line-as-ministers-splash-covid-cash-7wb5b8q0w; David Wilcock (22nd November 2020), ‘New 'chumocracy' row as Matt Hancock hands health department job to a lobbyist friend from university’, The Mail Online, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8974857/New-chumocracy-row-Matt-Hancock-hands-job-close-advis er-lobbyist-friend-university.html (all accessed 24th November 2020).

[2] Philip Webster (2016) Inside Story: Politics, Intrigue and Treachery from Thatcher to Brexit, London: William Collins, p. 8.

[3] For example: Hannah Arendt (1994) “Understanding and Politics”, In Jerome Kohn (Ed.) Essays in Understanding 1930- 1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, New York: Schoken Books, pp. 307-327; (1992) Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Ronald Beiner (Ed.), Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press; (2018) “Preliminary Remarks About The Life of The Mind” and “Transition” in Jerome Kohn (Ed.), Thinking Without A Bannister: Essays in Understanding 1953-1975, New York: Schoken Books, pp. 513-524.  

[4] Hannah Arendt (1993) “The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Its Political Significance”, in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought, New York: Penguin Books, pp. 173-196.

[5] Adrian Pabst (2019) The Demons of Liberal Democracy, Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 34-72.