Why to refuse the census

Protesters target ONS for Lockheed Martin census contract

This article was originally published in the Red Pepper online blog, March 20th, 2011.

In March this year, as in 2001, Lockheed Martin UK, a subsidiary of the world’s largest arms manufacturer, will be helping to run the census. Their specific role, contractually valued at £150 million, will be “delivering data capture and processing support services” for the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This seems innocent enough, but the job description is vague to the point of obfuscation. This is not unique to Lockheed, either. Ambiguity in both language and aesthetics is a hallmark of the arms industry’s PR. This is all arguably in aid of lending legitimacy to an industry that deserves none. When laid bare, the arms trade produces weapons, and benefits from the proliferation of war. To offer up such an unadulterated truth to the wider public would be a disaster in an ongoing strategy of legitimization.

Lockheed Martin, for example, are best known for their production of cluster munitions, F-16 jets and Trident Missiles. Their arms sales to Bahrain and other repressive regimes are an ongoing controversy.

Most civil corporations will endeavour to gain legitimacy in the public mind – achievable perhaps through a policy of corporate social responsibility. Arms companies are similar in wishing to present themselves as leaders of industry; however this presentation is orientated towards governments whose lucrative contracts they seek.

Conversely, by mimicking the language and even the work of generic corporatism, arms companies hope to appear to the public as just another corporation. This is not in order to stand out, but rather to sneak under the radar of citizens’ political and ethical interrogation.

Running the census is one such foray into the civil sector that Lockheed Martin –whose 2009 military sales amounted to over $33 billion, over 74 percent of total sales figures- has cultivated since 2001.

Relative to its military sales, the ONS contract represents an insignificant fraction of total annual income. But perhaps not all benefits come in pounds and pence…

With both the high profile investigations into BAE Systems’ corruption over the last few years, and David Cameron’s much criticized weapons-selling tour of North Africa, public awareness has grown surrounding the arms trade. It is surely a natural strategic reaction of an industry facing a potential legitimacy crisis to diversify into surveillance and civil sectors.

Put simply, in addition to the revenue earned, every successful census contract Lockheed Martin wins provides it with credibility that is in turn used to secure future contracts.

This cycle must be interrupted by an articulate and informed public. With this in mind, ‘Count Me Out’, an open network opposing Lockheed’s involvement in the census, has launched a UK-wide campaign to raise awareness and highlight action against it.

With a day of e-action and protest in the works, ‘alternative census forms’ being submitted, and full-scale boycotts planned, people are engaging in the campaign with a healthy attitude of creative dissent.

Count Me Out isn’t the first campaign to have taken action against the arms industry’s involvement in the census. It isn’t even the first to have used the name –Canada had its own indigenous ‘Count Me Out’ group protesting Lockheed’s contract in their 2006 census, which a number of people boycotted on conscientious grounds.

During the last UK census, 6,100 incidences of refusal were reported by the ONS, of which 38 prosecutions were taken forward. Whilst this percentage (0.6%) may be comforting to those considering non-cooperation, the price of civil disobedience is still alarmingly high: refusing to complete the census is a criminal offence under the Census Act 1920, carrying the possibility of a £1,000 fine.

Nothing speaks worse of a democratic system than when the conscientious objection of its citizens renders them criminals in the eyes of the law. But the most troubling thing for dissenters is the number of people who are still completely unaware of the integral involvement of the arms industry in running our census. This is sadly unsurprising.

When announcing the contract, the ONS referred to Lockheed Martin UK as “a unit of Lockheed Martin Corporation…[and] a leader in systems integration working on major programmes spanning the aerospace, defence and civil sectors.” Whilst this information is factually accurate, it uses the default descriptors of ‘aerospace’ and ‘defence’ instead of ‘military’ or ‘weapons manufacturing’. As to what the ‘major programmes’ entail, we are only left to guess.

Lockheed Martin’s corporate branding gives nothing away on the surface level either. Their website’s ‘About Us’ employs opaque phrases like “establish a long-term presence … develop industrial alliances for growth, and match corporate breadth with customer priorities.”

For the campaign is to have any lasting success it must start with the building blocks of language. Framing the debate has always been half the battle. The census is too valuable a resource to be tarnished by the political maneuverings of an illegitimate industry. If the government refuses to be up front about the nature of the companies it employs, then it must fall to us to offer a loud, articulate corrective.

 

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