Chaos, Mao and the Great Famine

Before Christmas, there were a couple of interesting pieces in the Observer and elsewhere picking up an emerging theme: David Cameron as Mao, ‘the great helmsman’.  One MP, Nicholas Boles, questioned the system of planning in local government.  He suggested that it be replaced by people power and chaos.  A few days later, Vince Cable suggested that the coalition government was taking on too much at too great a pace in areas like health and education.  He likened it to a ‘Maoist revolution’.  The two were connected in one review article (

However, I am not sure that these comments have identified a perhaps more important parallel with Mao’s China.  Yes, his rule was chaotic (‘organised chaos’ was the familiar refrain), reckless and mobilised millions in the belief that, through determined effort, material circumstances could be changed and improved.  But, internally, there was a particular managerial dynamic in the Chinese leadership that is of interest.  Mao set the agenda in very broad terms.  Aspirations, slogans and analogies litter his speeches and writings.  Nothing is clear and his name is never too closely linked to anything definite or concrete.  Subordinates, and particularly the ambitious ones, needed to be able to read between the lines, understand the intent and act vigorously to deliver.  Should things go wrong, Mao was able to identify the over zealous official as the responsible party.  Last year, Frank Dikötter published a work, Mao’s Great Famine, which presents in detail the destructive and murderous consequences of this management style.

Does this sound anything like the coalition government’s approach?  Certainly, there is the whiff of over enthusiastic underlings about Gove, Lansley and Pickles.  And there are any number of forecasts of chaos and worse that might follow upon some of their current reform proposals.  And we already have the start of the great famine, at least in terms of resources.

Happy New Year!


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