Freedom for Sale

John Kampfner
9 September 2009

As we sit in one of Moscow's fashionable neo-Tsarist restaurants, an old friend reminds me that there are only three Cs that matter: Chelsea, Cartier and Courchevel. The economic crisis has affected his real estate business, but not so much that he has to forgo life's many luxuries. In any case, the oil price is already beginning to rise and the economy is easing itself out of recession, so his confidence remains undiminished. For the past 20 years of globalised gluttony, Russia's embracing of conspicuous consumption has been the most pronounced of any emerging market. Some of its manifestations are particular, notably its unhealthy mix of nationalistic hubris and resentment of outsiders, what I have long called "the politics of envy".

Yet Russia's embrace of materialism to the detriment of so much else, shares many characteristics of other countries. In a year of travelling to research my book, "Freedom for Sale", I looked at eight countries, four of them notionally authoritarian - Singapore, China, Russia and the UAE - four notionally democratic - India, Italy, the UK and the USA. Why, I wanted to know, is it that so many people are willing to give up their freedoms in return for the promise of either prosperity or security? Why are people so reluctant to cause trouble, even where they have legal protection for free expression? Or to put it another way: why are the middle classes so easily bought off?

I first went to Russia in the late 1970s. I have been a regular visitor since, including two spells of working as a correspondent, in the mid 80s, and during the heady years of the early 90s. I saw the Soviet Union in stagnation and not-so-blissful isolation, when the verb "to buy" was less important than "to get hold of". The joke was "we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us". In the Yeltsin years, as Communism collapsed and uncertainty was the only certainty, Russians enjoyed unprecedented freedoms.

Of the people I know, those who have dealt with money have largely done well. Those with talent in other areas, from science to the arts, teachers and doctors, have seen not just their living standards collapse but their sense of pride and identity wither. They had invested many hopes in the new order, and had felt let down. Political liberalism allowed itself to be identified with uncaring shock-therapy capitalism. Lilia Shevtsova, a veteran chronicler of the era, summed it up to me like this: "Never had Russia been so free," she says. "But ordinary people wearied of their unprecedented freedom to criticise the government because it had brought no improvement to their real lives."

By contrast, in his eight years as president from 2000-2008, Vladimir Putin presided over the greatest period of economic growth and political stability his country had seen for a generation. Not everyone benefited, by any means. Most pensioners struggled to make ends meet; some people had their homes snatched from them by various developers' scams; others had failed to recover from the pyramid schemes of the last economic crash. Vulnerable members of society continued to suffer, as they had done in the 1990s.

But what mattered was that enough people were doing sufficiently well and considered themselves to be sufficiently free in their personal lives. Those doing well did extraordinarily well. Sports cars, designer shops and expensive restaurants had, by the mid-2000s become the norm for a small, but significant proportion of the population in the big cities. Moscow was said to have the best sushi outside Japan. It boasted more 6-series BMWs than any other city in the world. This wealth helped foster a revival of self-confidence - the belief that Russians could once again hold up their heads high in international company.

Putin therefore delivered. The concentration of authority in the hands of a small cabal of politicians and their business associates, and the elimination of alternative sources of power, allowed him systematically to curb public freedoms. Elections became a sham; parliament became a rubber stamping body. Small pockets of independent media were allowed to survive (the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the radio station Ekho Moskvy), but investigative journalists, lawyers and politicians who caused trouble were either persuaded to think again, imprisoned or found dead at the bottom of stairwells or ditches.

But many of the people I knew opted for a quiet life. Why the rock the boat when you can enjoy the good life, paying little more than 10 per cent of tax (at least that part that was declared), take your holidays in Cap Ferrat and live inside one of the many gated "villages" that were springing up on the outskirts of the city?

Putin's Russia resulted in an overwhelming indifference towards politics and atomisation of society through consumer goods. In so doing it was merely reflecting a broader trend. I call it the anaesthetic of the brain. In the UK and US, much of this decade has been dominated by a low-tax and security agenda that saw unprecedented intrusion of the state into people's lives, from surveillance and eavesdropping to pre-trial custody and other curbs on civil liberties. How many people complained? In Italy, what mattered far more than his sexual antics was Silvio Berlusconi's assault on the independence of the media and judiciary. How many times has he been voted into power?

The model for this new world order is Singapore, the state in which I was born, and which has long intrigued me. I am constantly struck by the number of well-educated and well-travelled people there I know who are keen to defend a system that requires an almost complete abrogation of freedom of expression in return for a good material life.

This is the pact. In each country it varies; citizens hand over different freedoms in accordance with their own customs and priorities. Cultures and circumstances may vary; systems can be radically different. We have all colluded; in the West we have colluded most. Unlike Russia, unlike China, we had the choice to demand more of our governments, to rebalance the relationship between state and individual, but for as long as the consumerist going was good we chose not to exercise it.

Freedom For Sale by John Kampfner is published by Simon and Schuster

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