Taking liberties

Books John Kampfner's new book traces the rise of 'authoritarian democracies' that deliver growth and suppress dissent. George Scialabba contemplates the new pact between the middle classes and their governments.

Britain under Thatcher and Blair, John Kampfner writes, has seen an exponential increase in surveillance and a steady decline in Parliamentary and judicial control over the police and intelligence agencies.
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

John Kampfner's new book traces the rise of 'authoritarian democracies' that deliver growth and suppress dissent. George Scialabba contemplates the new pact between the middle classes and their governments. Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty John Kampfner Simon & Schuster Dh54 Post-Cold War history began with two broken promises. The world's population eagerly anticipated a "peace dividend": the channeling of a large share of the vast resources formerly devoted to "defence" into domestic reconstruction, the alleviation of poverty, and humanitarian foreign aid. It didn't happen. When the international Communist conspiracy faded away, other rationales were found for continuing advanced weapons development and maintaining hundreds of American military bases around the world. Defence spending has not missed a beat in the United States, which has few manufacturing industries left, a decaying transportation system, a colossal trade deficit, and an economically insecure population, but which spends almost as much money on "defence" as all other countries combined.

Less explicitly, perhaps, but just as eagerly, many people also looked forward to a democracy dividend. "The natural logic of capitalism leads to democracy," proclaimed a Reagan-era bestseller by the American social theorist Michael Novak. The citizens of countries liberated from Communism, with moral and material support from the Cold War's magnanimous victors, would construct or restore democratic institutions and free markets. Third World societies, no longer caught between rival superpowers, would begin to receive primarily economic rather than security assistance from the US and could therefore develop without distorting military or ideological pressures. It seemed as though a yoke had been removed from the world's neck.

But not for long. The "Washington Consensus" replaced the Cold War as a constraint - a "straitjacket," as Thomas Friedman breezily acknowledged - on political development, more subtle but no less distorting than superpower rivalry. What has emerged, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a new and troublingly limited form of democracy. In this fiercely brilliant essay on the global political landscape at the beginning of the new millennium, John Kampfner -a longtime foreign correspondent, the former editor of the New Statesman, and now the head of Index on Censorship - chronicles what he calls "corrupted democracy", "authoritarian democracy" or "controlled democracy".

Many, perhaps most, advanced societies today, Kampfner argues, operate on the basis of a "pact," an implicit bargain between government and society. In exchange for consumer goods and private freedoms - to travel; to marry whomever, live wherever, and read whatever they wish; to do business without interference from government regulations or labour unions; and to pay few or no taxes - the rich and the middle class have agreed to abdicate politics. The government keeps opposition parties, the mass media, and academic or journalistic muckrakers on a very short leash. Surveillance waxes; civil liberties wane. Transparency, accountability, and citizen initiative are sacrificed to order, security and prosperity.

Kampfner begins in Singapore, the prototype and showcase of this new authoritarian democracy. The tiny city-state has an extraordinarily high per capita income, without the pockets of destitution that disfigure the US and UK and without those countries' inequitable and underfunded education, pension and health care systems. Government agencies are efficient and honest; violent crime and business fraud are rare. Travel is unhindered; technical and managerial innovations are welcomed; shopping is world-class. Streets and public buildings are clean as a whistle and neat as a pin. Just a month ago, the popular website New Geography placed Singapore at the top of its list of "The World's Smartest Cities".

There is, naturally, a large "on the other hand." Nothing is allowed that the government fears might threaten public order or social stability; and the government's sensitivities on this score are very delicate indeed. Spitting, chewing gum, yelling, or failing to flush a toilet in a public place; overstaying your visa; depicting (never mind engaging in) certain sexual acts; rashly employing irony or sarcasm; and, most important, criticising the government in ways the government deems not constructive - all these are swiftly and severely punished. Petty offenders are fined or caned; overzealous opposition politicians or trade unionists tend to be imprisoned for long stretches. Indiscreet newspapers or blogs are served with defamation suits. The local media is almost entirely under the control of state-owned companies, and even international publications like the Economist and the Far Eastern Economic Review watch their steps very carefully to avoid being charged in court. As Kampfner observes, Singapore "requires an almost complete abrogation of freedom of expression in return for a very good material life."

No other society, of course, has precisely reproduced this combination of economic dynamism paired with political and cultural paternalism. But many are trying, none harder than China. Chinese officials and businessmen at every level declare to Kampfner that the "Singapore model" is more suitable for their country than western liberal democracy, with the latter's wide scope for dissent and its panoply of individual rights against the state. Ties between the two countries are cordial and expanding. Singapore recruits young talent from China, and China sends hundreds of Party bureaucrats to Singapore each year to study public administration.

Kampfner, who was born in Singapore but has since reported from every continent, contends that more is in play here than shared "Asian values" that purportedly esteem collective prosperity above individual liberty. Even western businessmen in Singapore - and western-educated returnees - tell Kampfner that "an authoritarian regime, as long as it was stable, provides an attractive proposition for the creation of wealth". Increasingly this trade-off - political freedom for economic growth - is being pursued in Russia, India, the Middle East, Europe, and the United States as well.

The key to this development is the emergence of a cautious, disenchanted middle class. Political theorists in the West have generally assumed that democratic freedoms grow in tandem with a middle class strong enough to hold the state to account and diverse enough to require political competition, which in turn requires freedom of speech. But democracy has been getting a bad name among its purported bearers, taking the rap for political chaos and economic stagnation. In China, the Communist Party has largely succeeded in convincing the country's middle class that the freedoms demanded by students and dissident intellectuals at Tiananmen Square would have led to a welter of factional conflict, scaring away foreign investment and spiking economic growth. In Russia, democracy is associated with the Wild West atmosphere of the Yeltsin years, when market reforms created a cohort of billionaires as well as mass unemployment and a collapse of social services. India's middle class, revolted by the corruption and demagoguery of mass politics (though apparently not by the horrifying deprivations of the masses), has largely forsworn political engagement (apart from bribing politicians), hoping for a strongman who will maintain public order through a combination of patronage and Hindu nationalism - bread and circuses.

The West too is undergoing what Kampfner calls a "democratic recession". In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi's persistent popularity is due partly to his ownership of much of the country's mass media and his influence over the rest. But it's also partly an expression of public disillusionment with politics and a desire to be left alone by the state - above all by the tax collector. Britain under Thatcher and Blair has seen an exponential increase in technological surveillance and a steady decline in Parliamentary and judicial control of the executive branch, especially the police and intelligence agencies. Here the pretext was not growth but security: terrorist threats, first from the IRA and then from al Qa'eda. But London's centrality to international finance and its hospitality to rich foreigners with shady pasts have also helped to erode Britain's already weak traditions of free speech, journalistic muckraking, and official whistle-blowing. (Perhaps because of Kampfner's long residence in the UK, this chapter is particularly scathing.)

As for the United States, the Bush administration's assault on civil liberties and the signal failure of Congress, the media or the judiciary to resist it are already well-known. Kamfpner misses an opportunity here, discussing only the national security rationale and failing to bring out the deep-rooted hostility of the contemporary Republican Party to openness in government. For Republicans, September 11 was an opportunity to shield the tax and regulatory apparatuses, no less than the national security one, from media scrutiny and citizen challenge. They pursued that opportunity relentlessly, and with near-total success.

Freedom for Sale convincingly describes the unwritten "pact" between the middle and upper classes of most countries and their governments: the freedom to make, keep and spend money is granted in exchange for renouncing the freedom to question authority. Is this a good or bad bargain? Conscientious journalist that he is, Kampfner airs both sides. The proponents of the "Singapore model" (and they are not all Singaporeans) admonish us that "understanding the limits on freedom is what makes freedom possible. The greater good is impossible without some constraint on individualism." The Founding Father himself, Lee Kuan Yew, is given space to expound his philosophy: "At the end of the day, we offer what every citizen wants - a good life, security, a good education, and a future for their children. That is good governance."

But what is "a good life"? Lee clearly thinks that a life free of want and danger is good enough, and he is confident that most Asians will agree with him. Westerners may high-mindedly cite Aristotle's dictum that "man is by nature a political animal" or Pericles' declaration that "We Greeks do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is minding his own business. We say that he has no business." These remain stirring words, but as Kampfner shows, even westerners pay them no more than lip service these days.

George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?