17 July 2012

The Road to Serfdom

When Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom in 1944 it was one of several books reacting against the collapse of liberal values in Europe and the continent's descent into fascism. Hayek's argument was that an over-powerful state repressed the individual and that a system of markets, operating freely, and companies in competition with each other would best guarantee individual liberty.The organisation of the Olympic Games is a clear illustration of the way in which it is the private, corporate economy that is turning us into serfs, rather than the overweaning state that Hayek feared.

Those who have bought the expensive tickets to the Olympic venues will be prevented from taking in their own food and drink. The corporate sponsors have bought exclusive rights to advertising, meaning that small businesses will be prevented from using the games to increase their sales. Today we hear that a whole range of words are to be expunged from our vocabulary, since they remain the preserve of corporate marketeers who wish to use them to ensure that the Olympics and all words associated with it, bring profits to only the exclusive companies that have paid for the privilege. We are to be deprived of our freedom of speech. The fuzziness between public and private sectors also erodes our rights as citizens. As a trivial example, how are those with Olympic tickets to know, whether they are being searched by police officers, solidiers, or private security guards? And how are they to know whether they are being searched for weapons or sandwiches?

Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation was also published in 1944, and like Hayek, Polanyi was a refugee from fascism who also studied and wrote in London. The current failures of democracy and erosion of individual rights have arisen as a result of policies designed in response to Hayek's vision. Polanyi would agree with Hayek about the dangers of an over-powerful, centralised state, but his target is the market system itself, which turns people into the 'ficitious commodity' of labour and ignores the primal value of the land itself. Hayek's vision of the market as a system of competing firms was always a theoretical fiction, since in reality consolidation leads to domination by corporations, against whom our primary defence must be the government.

The green vision of the economy accepts the need for individual liberty but balanced by our role as citizens and the political power operated on our behalf by democratic institutions. We would also emphasise the importance of scale. Whether public, or private, an institution that operates at national or international level will always be oppressive of the individual merely by virtue of its size, and therefore the power it can wield.

As the Olympic Games loom nearer, for the UK citizen it is hard to see what they offer. Our rights to choose what we buy, where we go, and even what we say have been sold to corporations that are becoming as threatening to individual liberty as the powerful states that inspired Hayek's wrath. Through Hayek and Thatcher our civil and political liberties have been sacrificed on the altar of free-market capitalism.

George Orwell produced a review of The Road to Serfdom on its publication that foresaw the more threatening tyranny of the unconstrained privatised economy:

'in the negative part of Professor Hayek's thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often — at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough — that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of', but he was also able to see that 'a return to "free" competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state.'*

*Review of the Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek, etc" As I Please, 1943-1945: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, vol. 3, quoted on Wikipedia.

1 comment:

  1. 'How are they to know whether they are being searched for weapons or sandwiches' great way of expressing the nature of the situation.