I’m reading a new book by John Kampfner titled Freedom for Sale: How we made money and lost our liberty. Its available in libraries and bookstores.
John Kampfner’s study of the Singapore style of government – now spreading across the world – chillingly shows how much is lost under this brand of democracy, says Peter Preston…continue reading
I’ve come to think of it as the pact, the willingness of intelligent, well-to-do people to trade certain liberties in return for the promise of either prosperity or security. The model is Singapore, the city-state where I was born and a place that never ceases to fascinate me. But the pact’s appeal is now far more widespread and takes in not just the countries you might expect — China, Russia — but plenty you might not. Perhaps even the country you live in.
I’m not talking about totalitarian regimes, where fear is the predominant mechanism for ensuring state control, but countries where citizens enjoy extensive private freedoms — to travel, to own property, to conduct their personal lives as they wish and, of course, to make and spend money. As part of their tacit deal with their government, people consciously agree not to cause trouble, nor to engage in excessive criticism of it.
Singapore is in most respects a roaring success story, an economic powerhouse built in just 50 years on what was once a swamp. It is also a shining example of a country that successfully melds disparate population groups — Chinese, Malays, Indians and Europeans — in a region where ethnic and political strife are commonplace. But as the tiny number who seek to form or join opposition groups know, speaking out in Singapore can invite a lawsuit, bankruptcy or even prison. From time to time the government tentatively tries to open up. “Speakers’ Corner” was one such attempt. Modeled on its London namesake, it was established in 2000 in a park in downtown Singapore. When I visited last year, the instructions on a bulletin board listed the following rules: You must register at the police station around the corner; you must fill in forms and wait for permission; if it is granted, your speech will be recorded and can be held against you in any defamation or other trials. You are not allowed to raise any issues of religion or race — and you must not insult anyone in authority. I asked a police officer at the station when the next speaker was likely to appear. Not for some time, he told me. Nor could he remember the last person to apply.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin knows the pact well. Putin has long argued that economic success and social order must come before openness and plurality. Many Russians I know — friends from the early 1990s when we all watched, spellbound, the brief flowering of democracy — have come to agree with him. When I quit as editor of a British political magazine, one Russian friend phoned to declare how happy she was that I would now start doing something worthwhile with my life, like making money. Russians, Chinese and others utter a single word when such a viewpoint is challenged: Gorbachev. Remember, they ask, how the last Soviet leader tried to open up political life before sorting out the economy? The argument is about sequencing: What should come first.
And yet. One of the most convincing writers on this subject was the American political scientist Barrington Moore. In his work on the social origins of dictatorships, Moore coined the phrase “No bourgeois, no democracy.” It may be true that a middle class is necessary for the establishment of basic democratic rights, such as the vote. But the events of the past two decades have laid to rest any notion that the enrichment of a country provides an automatic impulse toward greater liberty. Remember the talk, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, about democracy arriving hand in hand with free markets? As people became economically secure, they would demand better governance, greater freedoms. But that hasn’t been the case in Russia, China or Central Asia. People in those places have found a way to disengage from politics while growing (mostly) more comfortable. Consumerism has provided the ultimate anesthetic. Perhaps there is no next stage.
This phenomenon relates not just to authoritarian countries or so-called managed democracies, but also to Western nations that proselytize about democratic values. Why else have Italians voted three times for a man who has sought to dismantle an independent judiciary and control the media? Why have Britons acquiesced in illiberalism to such an extent that local councils eavesdrop on the telephone calls and e mails of people they suspect of disposing of their garbage in the wrong place? Why do so many middle-class Indians either insulate themselves from the corruption of public and political life or, worse, participate in it?
In the era of globalized glut that presaged the crash, we allowed freedom to be recast as a vehicle to deliver consumption. But it is much more than that, and if we forget it we will all be the losers.