John Kampfner is a writer, journalist, and now an advisor on freedom of expression and culture for Google. In his book Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty, he takes an insight into the rising new authoritarianism in the world, compatible with economic rather than political rights. Covering Singapore, China, Russia, UAE, India, Italy, the UK and the US, his journalist investigation is an attempt to understand why so many people cede their liberties for economic welfare, thus undermining Francis Fukuyama’s established concept of liberal democracy.
UW: How is authoritarianism in the 21st century different from the 20th-century dictatorships?
The 21st-century authoritarianism model is very different from the 20th-century dictatorship, such as practiced in the Soviet Union, the Communist China or North Korea, and by fascist governments in Latin America. There was no pact there – the government ruled by fear and by telling people how to live their lives. In the long run, this is not sustainable because people cannot breathe without any private freedom. Today, the state offers a pact whereby citizens insist on their private freedom to make and spend money; choose their own private life; buy and sell property; work, travel and educate their children where they want to; choose their health care. They make their bubble – quite a big one – that they want to have to themselves and do not want the state to interfere. In return, the state says, that’s fine, we will give you that but don’t mess about with us; don’t come on to our territory; don’t criticize us unduly; don’t get involved in politics and decision-making: you stay in your bubble, and we will run our own affairs. For the vast majority of people in all countries, irrespective of their history, geography or culture, this is a very reasonable combination. I say this sadly because I regard myself as one of the people who like to call themselves troublemakers.
UW: If a state benefits from a pact and the majority feels content, why do authoritarian regimes have a permanent source of social instability?
In this system, the victims are those who ask questions that people in power would rather not answer. These include investigative journalists, lawyers, bloggers, activists, human rights advocates. But the vast majority of people are fairly relaxed about what governments do as long as it doesn’t affect them personally. However, there is one important point: even when you don’t have public freedom, you need to have an element of a law-based society. For example, in a society where public freedom is so restricted that there is no transparency corruption increases. This fuels physical threat: people steal each other’s property but do not faced punishment. In many countries, where people can’t get many services – health care for instance – unless they bribe somebody, the pact doesn’t work.
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UW: You refer to this pact as the “Singapore model”. Your investigation started with Singapore. Many young and bright economists in Ukraine today talk of it as a role model and approve of Lee Kuan Yew’s reforms. What are the threats here?
Well, I like the country a lot – I grew up there. All Western leaders always talk positively about Singapore. It’s a strong and respected country that attracts East and West, democrats and dictators. It’s consumer paradise that shows the priorities of a modern human. When Singapore gained independence from Great Britain, its GDP was equal to that of Ghana. It was a poor former colony built on a swamp. Its geological and geographic conditions were very bad for development. There was no reason for Singapore to be successful. But it turned out to be an extraordinary economic success.
I have a lot of Singapore friends who are extremely well-traveled. The airport there is like a bus stop. They are extremely well-educated – they’ve all been to Harvard, Oxford and Yale. And they are happy to give away certain public freedoms voluntarily. This partly because they have allowed themselves to be convinced (and these are very intelligent people) that this is a model for development. They say that too much public freedom generates too much instability and potential ethnic and social conflicts.
A major supporting pillar of a state is the middle class which mostly feels fine until it gets to the public sphere. Social housing and other social privileges provide it with good living conditions. Meanwhile, I’ve seen the Singapore government persecute both the locals and foreigners for insignificant criticism. Election constituencies are constantly reshaped and opposition members are put in jail.
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UW: Let’s play a devil’s advocate: who needs civil liberties when most people feel content?
At first sight, a society that takes care of its public freedoms does not seem to have that much of an advantage. However, authoritarian regimes are clever: they never make it entirely clear on what is permissible and what is not. They don’t say that you’re going to be arrested if you say this or that. People who are naturally cautious try to stay inside the line. That’s exactly what looks attractive to policy makers in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. So, most people just get on with their lives. I think corruption level in Ukraine – and certainly in Russia – has reached such a level that the pact doesn’t really work because you don’t have your private freedom. Instead, you depend on bribing somebody or constantly living in fear that some law will be used arbitrarily to deprive you of your private rights. That’s where it breaks down. In the Singapore model, you have to be able to trust to a certain extent that the state won’t deprive you of your rights.
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UW: You have lived and worked in Russia and often mention relations between London and Moscow. You say that the British forgive the Russians, including the Russian business, a lot of things for economic benefits. Ever since your book was published, the situation in Russia has changed and part of the financially-successful people is no longer happy with the government.
There was a time when Dmitri Medvedev was the closest advocate of the Singapore model in the post-Soviet space. He was always talking about a law-based society in Russia. He didn’t really mean democracy. He was rather talking of a slightly softer version of Putinism.
In general, the developments over the last eighteen months in Russia have been negative, including rigged election, arrests of people, suppression of public manifestations and laws restricting NGOs. Now Russia is moving away from political freedoms.
As to the relations with London, there has always been a dissonance between the Russia as the West would like to see it, and what the Russians themselves would like to have. The phenomenon of the global superrich which is the subject of my next book is that governments around the world are very keen to embrace these people while trying to overlook the way they earned their wealth.
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UW: You began to write your book before the 2008 financial crisis. Has there become more “freedom for sale” since then?
Before the crisis, everybody was optimistic about economics and their ability to earn and spend money. Things have obviously changed – in Europe and the US particularly, not Asia. The essential trade-off has not changed. The Arab Spring and other revolutions left an impression that everybody is interested in public freedoms and ready to make sacrifices for them – that is a case to a certain degree. In some ways, it is similar to the colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. But I still think that, fundamentally, a strong trade-off exists whereby, with the exception of a minority of activists, the vast majority of people are content with private freedoms. They are prepared to give away part of their public freedoms for an element of security of prosperity.
UW: You’ve written about – and criticized – the “surveillance state”, including the UK. You mentioned the grand scale of surveillance over people with video cameras and other electronic devices. Now you work at Google. This company probably knows more about us than anyone in the world does, with its huge resources and the potential of growing into a real Big Brother. What do you think about it?
These are absolutely crucial questions for our present and future. This is not just about Internet. This is about supermarkets and their loyalty cards. Whenever you buy a book from Amazon, it tells you the next book you might want to buy. And they are always right because they know your tastes and preferences. This also applies to the state. The UK government was very close to introducing this terrible law that would grant hundreds of public bodies access to any information available at Internet providers and telephone operators over the past year. That’s the kind of thing authoritarian countries would be happy to have. Thankfully, it wasn’t passed but it may come back. In fact, any information and data you put online about yourself is available anyway. People are arrested in this country for what they say on Twitter. Whether it’s censorship or freedom of expression, privacy or security, or tracking devices on your phone, we are now only at the beginning of trying to understand the consequences of technological innovation for society. There is a lot of this is philosophical or cultural in how we try to deal with that. I always try to provoke a debate on this. Meanwhile, my two teenage daughters are more careful about their online privacy than people who are now five or ten years older were at their age. They are beginning to understand that whatever one says online or whatever information one provides is available to the public.