The Road to Serfdom

The Tories have declared that the Labour manifesto will take us back to the 1970s. Recalling a time when taxes were high, debt was lowering, our services were nationalised, education was free, democracy was strong and inequality was dropping, they plead with us not to return to those dystopian days. Why? Because Labour’s promise to nationalise the railways is the first step on the road to a communist dictatorship. Privatisation is the only defence we have against this horror, paying companies to profit from our needs, the only way to ensure we are free. Private enterprise ensures our democracy.

Democracy emerged from a long, hard-fought and bloody battle against divine rule, against those deemed worthy of land and those deemed unworthy. Before democracy, we were serfs. We all had to work the land we lived on, and only that land. We couldn’t holiday in the south of France, or even Norfolk. We all had to give a proportion of what we made to the land-owners who essentially owned us. They could take what they wanted, and we couldn’t do anything about it. Democracy was fought for to give us all a voice, all a say in how things should be done, a share in the sovereignty of the nation. It emerged to make us all masters of our destiny. By enfranchising all of us, it makes sure that no one becomes a serf again.

Democracy frees us, then. But what is democracy? It is a process of joint decision making over our common sovereignty. Our common sovereignty can include natural resources and, arguably, certain closed-markets like healthcare and energy, which we need to live happy, prosperous lives. This is why new democracies tend to go on a nationalising spree, of mines, oil fields, healthcare; rather than a ruling elite having control and getting rich from these things, the whole people can share in them, and prosper from them. It’s not because they’re communists, but because they believe in freedom.

For an, as yet, unsolved reason, some rich people didn’t like this and started saying that nationalisation was tantamount to communism, that it was bad for the economy (despite economies generally improving and poverty generally decreasing after democracies starting sharing in their sovereignty). This was all started by Freidrich Hayek, who published The Road to Serfdom in 1944. In it, he argued that all forms of government control over economic decision-making would result in tyranny, and that it was only through liberalism that freedom would be achieved. His book inspired many, including, famously, Milton Friedman. Writing to Pinochet, Friedman summed up the basic idea of this freedom loving economic theory: “the major error…[is] to believe that it is possible to do good with other people’s money.” Government would only spend the money badly, inefficiently. Only private individuals can be trusted to spend their money in the best possible way. Government cannot be trusted, and trusting it will only lead to tyranny. Freedom was now equated with economic freedom, the economic freedom of the private individual over the public purse. Through economic freedom, political freedom would emerge.

This view became popular, and now most countries have undergone varying degrees of privatisation. We now have privatised transport, electricity, water, and spaces. We can no longer control prices, quality or how money is spent. We can no longer protest in some open spaces because private companies don’t like protests. Nipples aren’t allowed on Facebook because they may result in a loss of religiously conservative users. With each new privatisation, we lose a bit of our sovereignty, lose a chance to decide on the things that affect us.

Bus cancellations, train delays and rocketing prices, utility bills, show us that privatisation is neither more efficient nor more cost-efficient than nationalisation. Worse, we can’t do anything about the costs and the efficiency because we have handed our decision-making power over those matters to anonymous companies. Privatisations result in poverty and inequality, in reduced life chances, because the people who once benefited from a shared prosperity have been disenfranchised from it, left with a vote that means nothing. We have given away our democracy, handed it to oligarchs and conglomerates, our new feudal lords. When we privatise, we take a step back towards serfdom, not away from it.

The spread of neoliberalism through dictatorships and coups in South and Central America, Russia, China, and Indonesia and the raging inequalities that have been left in its wake, shows this. Rather than being a struggle for freedom, it is a struggle for economic dominance, enforced through political suppression. Everywhere neoliberalism was enforced, a small rich elite emerged, together with a massive, impoverished, underclass. Essentially, it is a struggle for the return of feudalism. Much like the immigrant who votes to restrict immigration, those who champion privatisation forget where we came from.

A true democracy frees us. It reduces the economic pressures on us, gives us space to pursue our own goals, without worrying about whether can pay that extortionate electricity bill, or afford to go to see the doctor. Democracy takes away the opportunity for massive companies to exploit us and take our money and our labour and give us crap in return. Democracy gives us the opportunity to change things if we don’t like how they are being run. Democracy preserves our national assets and preserves our freedom. Democracy stops people profiting from our basic needs, from forcing us to work the land so another profits from it. Nationalised industry may not be perfect, but it stops us returning to feudalism.

Nationalising important services is not communism, but a necessary part of freedom. I’d rather go back to the 1970s than the 1370s.

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