Freedom (is not just economic)
The danger is not from the petty authoritarian tendencies of Robert Fico the PM of Slovakia as portrayed in some fairly US centric Slovak commentators on the right. It is true that power is exercised fairly strongly in Slovakia (but that was true of the Dzurinda administration which had a fairly radical and successful political agenda with some excesses).
That is actually to be welcomed as in Slovakia governments still have the power to change policy rather than trying to copy each other like in the UK or the US. Fico is an old-fashioned conviction politician who does seem to want to entrench some social democratic standards in Slovakia and actually believes in certain things and within the ability of the state budget he has provided some support to weaker people without for the most part restricting the ability of those who can take care of themselves from prospering. The fact that he doesn't seem to adore and suck up to rich people is not bad at all.
It is also understandable for example to hate tabloids (they have tried to disturb his personal life on many occasions with a unbelievable audacity) as he does because they do express the worst in a society and they do try to subvert the political debate to serve their owners interests (e.g. the Sun in the UK). Although i don't like the press law in Slovakia, I always thought that tabloid journalists engage in very murky circles. We need to draw a line between the financial times and the Sun. Tabloids are a caricature of journalism and a force for evil. Broadsheets however should not be put in the same bag. Fico should respect constructive and intelligent criticism and debate.
The decline of the business model of newspapers makes them even more likely to be bought by organised interests that want to have the upper hand in the political debate. Again this has happened in any country with thriving tabloids that express and represent the worst in human nature.
If one looks to the UK, the extreme consensus between Labour and the Conservatives has hollowed out politics of all relevance and has led to what feels like an ungoverned state. The result is that Britain, from a fairly well governed state, is ending up as an over-indebted country with an increasingly extremist electorate (Anti-EU, BNP growing, curtailed civil liberties through extreme anti-terror laws) and it certainly feels like it is the beginning of this process.
Free market economics has changed our democracies. Ironically these policies are bringing about authoritarianism back. The mechanism this works through are principally two.
- Some citizens become very rich which allows them to influence the debate through their wealth (buying TV stations or other media), they are likely to influence it through entrenching the status quo that allowed them to become rich. Essentially some have a huge megaphone that allows them to promote their ideas irrespective of their value. Deregulation was one such idea and that led to the financial crisis.
- The better off in society -even if slightly better off- do not vote taking into account the overall interests of the country, but simply seek to re-enforce the policies that keep them better off. Their prosperity is dependent on low social mobility and change. That is not a high quality democracy.
Ergo: Too much political consensus between left and right is a mistake
So where has this footballisation of politics and public life come from. Why are so many governments turning more and more authoritarian?
A review of a very interesting book about how increasingly the excesses of the right wing ideologues like Tony Blair (no mistake here) stemming from the time of Reagan have pushed the emergence of a feudal flavour of capitalism to be found in economically prosperous but culturally and democratically backward and stifling states like Malaysia or Singapore. Note that corruption is endemic in this sort of Fascistic regime. Its a fusion of tame consumer/citizens, propaganda, really low quality of democracy and essentially a well disguised oligarchy with some democratic traits.
Because there are no ideas or ideals in the debate, the debate becomes irrelevant. People don't vote so the extremists get bigger and bigger shares. Also a public fed a diet of tabloid news is likely to be far more susceptible to extremist politics. The stifling consensus where whatever one votes they get the same policies has brought about stability but also an erosion of democracy and brought about the politician who is popular not because he wants to do things that you as a citizen agree with, but because you like his dress sense, or you would like to be as rich as him. Berlusconi is in that mould at least partially.
Ironically globalisation and competition is now forcing European and American states to lose any flourishes of democracy and free speech they developed in the past to revert to gameshow host type of leaders (e.g. Berlusconi, Zapatero, Blair, Bush). The citizen is economically free (kind of because corruption is playing its part to skew even this). But policy is strictly set and permanent and not something that an elected leader can change. The countries that this is entrenched in the most are the US and the UK.
Review by Samuel Brittan
Published: November 2 2009 06:24 | Last updated: November 2 2009 06:24
It is no longer a startling observation that the more western governments have spoken about freedom and democracy in the struggle against their enemies, the more the freedom part, at least, has been curtailed. In Britain, the Thatcher government tightened the screws on freedom of expression. The Blair government went further in curtailing historical rights such as habeas corpus and free speech.
In my view, the most profound study of this process in its historical context is Ben Wilson’s What Price Liberty? John Kampfner’s Freedom for Sale, on the other hand, makes up in breadth what it lacks in depth. While Wilson was mainly concerned with Britain, with a few glances across the Atlantic, Kampfner, a British political journalist, includes the US, Italy, Russia, Singapore, China, India and the Arab Emirates, and in nearly all he discovers similar erosion. Like Wilson, he attacks the thesis that capitalism inevitably leads to personal and political freedom as well as democracy. He cites Benjamin Franklin, who declared in 1755 that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”. The excuse has always been that freedom is sacrificed for prosperity and security. Kampfner is inclined to concede that there might be something in this.
If he had only included the Scandinavian countries, for instance, in his survey, he could have seen that personal and political freedom need not be an impediment to prosperity. Too many businessmen regard critics of the Chinese and Russian regimes as doctrinaire nuisances who impede their making of money.
Security is more difficult; but Kampfner has little difficulty in showing that the restraints imposed by the Blair government went far beyond the legitimate struggle against terrorism. During his term of office Blair “had bequeathed to his successor a surveillance state unrivalled anywhere in the democratic world”.
It seems to me that the problem with Blair was – to put it kindly – an aversion to abstract thought. Hence his sneering remarks about the liberal tradition. With Gordon Brown it is different. He believes the hallmark of progressive thinking is a positive attitude to the state against “right wing” laisser faire. While this attitude stems from a preoccupation with the economic and social arguments of the 20th century, it spills over into a carelessness about civil liberties as well. In practice both New Labour prime ministers were guided by the demands of the security chiefs and the desire to be seen to be “tough”.
Politicians and mandarins tend to confuse politically embarrassing leaks with threats to national security, as Kampfner points out. On a more trivial but revealing level, Kampfner quotes a French journalist writing from the UK: “Here you are actively encouraged to denounce your neighbour for not paying road tax or putting a bin out early … There are councils that spy on their taxpayers as if they were common criminals… the Home Office proposes to set up a database holding information on every telephone call made, every email sent and every website visited by every single British citizen.” Nor do the media, who value excessively their access to top government figures, come off much better. To get the point, you only have to hear or read that “Brown has decided” or “Cameron has decided” on matters where these politicians thankfully still have no such power.
Kampfner pessimistically accepts that an authoritarian capitalism on the Singapore model is spreading worldwide: the people have made their Faustian bargain. Yet I still cherish the hope, not that the masses will read John Stuart Mill, but that enough personal experiences of the basic inhumanity of this model will lead to some kind of liberal reaction in some countries and some times.