In his latest book, Freedom for Sale, noted British journalist and political commentator John Kampfner notes a startling phenomenon — the middle class seems to be willing to give up their public and political freedoms for the sake of living in more material comforts. Currently in India to promote his book, Kampfner talks about this curious “pact” between the people and the authorities.
Where did you first observe this phenomenon?
I first observed it in my own country, towards the end of 2007, when I saw the extent to which public debates were being reduced to questions of material needs. The right to earn was seen as a fundamental right. This global phenomenon began simultaneously in the early ‘90s, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the advent of technology in economics that allowed a free flow of money around the world.
In what specific ways do people give up their liberties for material comforts?
In countries like India, there has been a consistent erosion of public debate, which is replaced by a desire to wear designer clothes and drive fast cars. In Britain, surveillance of ordinary lives through closed-circuit cameras has been taking away civil liberties, but the public largely consents to it. Personal rights such as gay rights, divorce or abortion rights, have become most important.
Has consumerism made the world forget past struggles?
Yes, I believe consumerism is an anaesthetic for the brain. The idea that by acquiring wealth and comforts people would be more driven to participate in public action has been utterly disproven today.
Have terror attacks such as 26/11 served as wake-up calls?
My reading of the Indian middle class is that they had created a parallel universe for themselves, insulated from the public sphere. The 26/11 attack posed a challenge to them, since the state failed to provide security. But the anger fizzled out. I don’t see a great change in this phenomenon for a long time – the pact is in a strong state of health, sadly.