At least we still have the freedom to shop…

John Kampfner’s account of the erosion of freedom following the end of the Cold War is written with verve and clarity. But is he right that we were all bought off by consumerism?

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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John Kampfner’s historical narrative in Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty may not be novel, but it is still worth retelling. Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR disintegrated. It seemed that liberalism, after a centuries-long battle with autocracy, had finally won out.

It was not to be. The ‘end of history’ euphoria that accompanied the close of the Cold War, the Western elites’ sense that liberal democracy was the ‘final form of government’, quickly ebbed away. The reason was not difficult to fathom. Faced by political elites bereft of purpose, something that might once have been provided through the system-affirming battle with the Red Menace, Western publics became disenchanted with mainstream politics. Electoral turnouts declined, and political institutions, wrestling with a nagging sense of their illegitimacy, began to appear increasingly hollow.

As the Nineties turned to Noughties, and elite triumphalism had given way to a low-level anxiety, people’s liberty, once a source of Cold War pride for the West, became an object of fear. Not just for the state, but for other citizens, too. While the particular form this object took was mutable – fear of crime, fear of anti-social behaviour, fear of paedophiles, fear of terrorists – its basis was constant: the idea of an excess of civil liberty, and with it, the problematic freedom to do wrong. In this context, 9/11 was not the catalyst for the erosion of civil liberties, it was merely the accelerator.

As Kampfner notes, bleakly, in the UK alone a raft of liberty-shrinking legislation has been introduced over the past 10 years. In fact, since coming to power in 1997, New Labour has enacted 45 new criminal justice laws, creating 3,000 new offences; that is, ‘more than the total for the whole of the twentieth century’. As for that crucial plinth of liberty – free speech – the assault has been relentless. The Terrorism Act 2000, coupled with the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, has, by criminalising so-called inciteful or offensive speech, created a bona-fide category of thought crime.

Quite simply, the British public has never been more suspect. With one CCTV camera for every 12 citizens, the UK is now, to quote the Washington Post, the ‘world’s premier surveillance society’. It’s not just cameras either. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, or as Kampfner calls it, the ‘snooper’s charter’, legally enshrines the state’s right to monitor people’s private communications. By 2006, the authorities had made over 250,000 applications to do just that – snoop.

Kampfner’s litany of freedom-chipping measures is no less dispiriting for being familiar. The five million-strong DNA database; the hundreds of thousands of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders dished out in place of justice; the extension of pre-trial custody from a draconian seven days in 1997 to 28 days, a de facto suspension of Habeus Corpus not seen since William Pitt the Younger’s aristocrat-only administration in the 1790s was busy hunting for Jacobins under the bed. The list goes on.

But what makes Kampfner’s account so compelling is his starting point. Too often, accounts of how we lost our liberty seem content to blame either the allegedly Stalinist impulses of New Labour, or the small group of so-called neocons who supposedly pulled President George Bush’s strings right throughout the ‘war on terror’. It woz them right-wingers/left-wingers wot dunnit, goes the thinking. Kampfner is too insightful to indulge in any of this. There’s no cabal of neocons or born-again Soviet commissars in the shadows here, drawing up plans for a world of total control. And that’s because Kampfner’s point of departure is not the illiberal state itself; it’s what he sees as a pact between citizens and the state. There doesn’t need to be a jack-booted oppressor in this telling because people, even if they are being oppressed, seem to be accepting the attack on freedom. In short, our liberties are being taken away with consent.

Kampfner’s fascinating account of this pact and the forms it takes is not limited to the UK, or even the West. In fact, the first five chapters concentrate on China, Russia, India, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore.

Described by one observer during the 1960s as a ‘cesspool of squalor and degradation’, Singapore now has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world. As Kampfner notes, the rich are very rich, and the poor very comfortable. But its economic success, almost entirely under the firm hand of Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party, has come at a cost. While people are free to enjoy many private freedoms, public freedoms – not least the freedom to criticise the regime – are withheld. People, however, are not revolting – they are, by and large, complicit. And this is key for Kampfner. In effect, the material transformation of Singapore jusitifies its authoritarian politics. Nothing, certainly not political oppostion, is allowed to stand in the way of wealth creation, ‘the ultimate patriotic duty’. ‘At the end of the day’, explained Lee at Harvard in 2006, ‘we offer what every citizen wants – a good life, security, good education, and a future for their children. That is good governance.’ Too much liberty, too much freedom to criticise, too much politics can only distract from the long-term task of getting things done, and securing people’s material happiness.

While there has been opposition, not least from the frequently jailed and recently deceased JB Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s first opposition MP in 1981, Kampfner argues that by and large people in Singapore, or at least the business and middle classes, feel sufficiently free to be happy. ‘The national pastime of shopping’ is consolation enough.

But Kampfner is not just talking about Singapore here. People across the globe are prepared to accept the trade-off between political, public freedoms and the private freedom to consume. This last freedom, to use Kampfner’s favourite word for it, is like an ‘anaesthetic’. He adds: ‘Even more horrifying is the thought that plenty of people around the world, irrespective of their political culture, have also been contentedly anaesthetised. Singapore may be the home of the trade-off in its purest form, but are we all more Singaporean than we realise?’

In every country he looks at, he sees a version of this Singaporean pact. Of China he observes that ‘[the state] has largely withdrawn from people’s everyday lives, giving Chinese citizens unprecedented freedoms to consume and to organise their professional and personal development. This increased personal freedom has been matched with ever more sophisticated control of the public sphere.’ In India, which unlike China is a democracy, he again sees a different version of the trade-off between wealth creation and political liberty: ‘The comfortable classes, the people over the last 20 years who could have used the country’s new wealth to engineer improvements, either turned a blind eye to society’s failings or knowingly played a part in them. They could have been active in the public realm. Unlike in authoritarian states, they would not have been punished for causing trouble. Instead, they chose not to. The level of complicity, therefore, is surely higher.’

If Kampfner is damning of India’s successful middle classes, he is even more scathing when it comes to the citizens of the UK and the USA: ‘We all did it. We are still doing it. We each choose different freedoms we are prepared to cede. Citizens in both [Eastern and Western] systems have colluded, but those in the West have colluded the most. They had the choice to demand more of their governments, to rebalance the pact between liberty, security and prosperity, but for as long as the going was good they chose not to exercise it.’

As Kampfner sees it, wealth, or at least the ability to spend, has gone hand-in-hand with political disengagement. We in the West have been prepared to give up certain freedoms in return for affluence. ‘For 10 years many Britons – at least the floating voters required for electoral victory – had enjoyed increasing prosperity, indulging in their favourite hobby of borrowing and spending money… Meanwhile, ministers vowed that they would stop at nothing – literally nothing – to keep them safe. This was an arrangement that suited all sides, as the polls showed.’ As for the US, the story is similar: ‘Liberties are rescinded, again and again, with little complaint from the vast majority of people’, not least, as Kampfner argues, because the target was almost always foreigners, non-citizens. ‘Most American voters were content with [the contraction of civil liberty], safe in the knowledge that neither they nor anyone they knew – good God-fearing, law-abiding folk – were likely to be affected by these measures.’

Yet, as right as Kampfner is to locate the erosion of civil liberty not so much in the state as in that which it presupposes, namely a particularly atomised civil society, his repeated emphasis on the anaesthesia of consumerism doesn’t really explain much. Too often it simply looks like a disdain for people’s material aspirations, which, after all, are hardly irrational. Indeed, celebrated struggles for liberty from the English Civil War to the French Revolution have been always been marked by a striving for a better material life.

More to the point, is the freedom to shop really to blame? Kampfner almost seems to attribute magical powers to consumerism, and its conceptual accompaniment here: globalisation. It’s as if the expansion of the market after the end of the Cold War automatically transformed citizens across the world into complacent shoppers, concerned only with the freedom to shop unfettered. It’s an argument that is more than a little deterministic. That we do conceive of ourselves principally as private individuals, as consumers, owes as much to subjective changes as it does to the objective expansion of the market. Where once political engagement, indeed political struggle, was defined by a largely class-based solidarity, such collective identities no longer exist in the same way. It was this, a political defeat in the contest over production, that narrowed aspirations, not the inexorable expansion of the sphere of consumption and its irresistable charms, be they shopping malls or online retailers.

There’s no doubt that Kampfner has produced a powerful account of our contemporary unfreedom, stuffed with invaluable anecdotes, and written with verve. But the erosion of liberty he so accurately depicts cannot simply be explained as a Faustian pact between wealth-craving citizens and the state’s thirst for their liberal souls. To explain it in such terms risks replicating the suspicion of people’s interests – in this case, a desire for a higher material standard of living – that turned civil society into the object of state regulation in the first place.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty, by John Kampfner, is published by Simon & Schuster. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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