Freedom for Sale

Issue section: 

John Kampfner, Simon & Schuster, £18.99

John Kampfner, the former editor of the New Statesman and now the head of Index on Censorship, is deeply troubled by the dramatic rise of what he dubs "the surveillance state" under New Labour.

Kampfner is rightly angry at the deep illiberal shift Labour ministers have charted. He hits out at many of the right targets and tells you some hair-raising things (did you know that during Tony Blair's premiership 3,000 new criminal offences were put on the statute book?). Much of this is familiar stuff, though it pays repeating, and Kampfner does it well.

What makes this a much more interesting book is that he seeks to place these sinister developments in a much wider global context. From booming China and the city-state of Singapore to Silvio Berlusconi's Italy, Kampfner looks at what has happened to the promise that the free market would usher in an age of global democratic transformation.

On the surface there is a case that can be made that this is indeed what has happened. For what it's worth, by 2000 the United Nations was classing 120 of its 192 member states, the overwhelming majority, as democracies. Yet Kampfner asks whether alongside this unprecedented expansion in the quantity of democracy there hasn't also been profound erosion in its quality, even in its supposed heartlands in the West.

Equally, when the alternative to triumphal talk of "Western democracy" is North Korea, the competition isn't particularly attractive. But when it's the market-dictatorship of China or the apparently iron stability of prosperous Singapore, the lure of what Kampfner calls "material authoritarianism" is a rather different proposition, not just for other ruling classes, but importantly for much of the expanding global middle classes.

Kampfner is at pains to distinguish such regimes from simple dictatorships. Crucially, the state gives ample room for, indeed positively encourages, private enrichment and increasingly tolerates a degree of leeway over personal lifestyle, compared to the rigid regimentation of, say, Mao's China. But the deal - or "pact" as Kampfner calls it - is this: leave the public realm of politics and state power to us, and we will act to guarantee your prosperity. Above all, don't do anything to encourage the masses to agitate for change, or you could lose everything.

Increasingly the legitimacy of the Chinese state (or Singapore, or Putin's Russia) has come to rest on its ability to deliver endlessly expanding wealth and consumption for both the ruling class and a much wider middle class beyond them. The boundaries between the private and public realms have been redrawn to suit the age of neoliberal hubris.

But he also makes the point that those states that are formally, at least, much more democratic than China or Russia have considerably more characteristics in common with such authoritarian states than is acknowledged in the ideological self-image they hold of themselves. He points to the deep corruption of the Indian state, the "world's biggest democracy", and the withdrawal of the wealthy from any form of civic engagement. But much the same tale can be told about Britain or the US.

At the heart of all this, Kampfner sees a trade-off between security and prosperity on the one hand and liberty on the other. Above all, freedom has been reworked to mean the freedom to make money and consume - at least for the winners of neoliberal globalisation. As he rightly notes, there are staggering increases in inequality pervading all these societies, notionally democratic or otherwise.

One question that hovers over the book is what the global financial crash means for the fate of the "pact" between rulers and the middle classes.At times, Kampfner suggests it will reinforce a desire for stability and security, as the affluent hope a strong state can protect them from the worst of the crisis until the good times return in the not too distant future. At other times, he suggests that states whose legitimacy rests heavily on delivering continuously rising prosperity could face a rather more turbulent fate.

However, missing entirely from the book is any discussion of those whose labour has created all this wealth. The global working class barely gets a mention, except to acknowledge that it has been the victim of neoliberalism.

So as Kampfner moves from country to country he meets an endless stream of politicians, real estate managers, senior academics, movie directors and so on. They often have interesting things to say, but he never discusses these things with working people (in stark contrast to Paul Mason's book about the global working class, Live Working or Die Fighting). This can only reinforce a sense of perplexity about where any force for change can come from.

Of course, it is also true that cracks in the alliance between rulers and the middle classes can create the initial space for workers to begin to act, although this doesn't guarantee that they will start to do so independently in their own interests. Workers' capacity to develop their own fighting organisations is a requirement for that but also for a real democratic renewal.