July 20, 2023

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Coercion and tyranny are what governments do to us, whereas the private sector is where choice, consent, and spontaneity reign. This is one of the bedrock certainties of the modern Anglo-American Right, and each day brings fresh evidence that it’s a myth. Nigel Farage is only the latest ardent free-marketeer to learn the lesson the hard way.

Last month, the former Ukip and Brexit Party leader had his account unceremoniously terminated by his financial institution, the London-based Coutts. Initially, Coutts claimed that the move was based purely on “commercial” considerations, having to do with Farage’s failure to meet a requisite “financial threshold”. Yet as the firm’s internal deliberations have revealed, the decision to de-bank Farage had almost entirely to do with his political views and associations.

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In a meeting last November, Coutts’s reputational-risk committee counselled against “continuing to bank” Farage given his “publicly stated views that were at odds with our position as an inclusive organisation”. Farage’s crimes include his use of “globalist” as a pejorative; his “‘useful idiot’ admiration” for Vladimir Putin; his retweeting of Ricky Gervais lampooning gender ideology; and his meeting with vaccine-sceptical tennis champ Novak Djokovic.

De-banking, and the freezing of digital assets and transactions, form a relatively new strategy for suppressing dissent in supposedly non-coercive market societies. It was first deployed in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, when PayPal blocked a Christian crowdfunding site that facilitated fundraising for detained protesters. Days later, GoFundMe said it would ban any crowdfunding campaigns for travel to political rallies “where there is a potential for violence”.

The following year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government invoked Canada’s Emergency Act to de-bank truck drivers involved in an anti-vaccine-mandate uprising. As Canadian-born trucker and activist Gord Magill reported, Trudeau’s financial crackdown was “far more sweeping than initially believed: Not only personal bank accounts, but insurance policies, investments, and business activities of anyone targeted by the government were suspended.”

Coutts’s de-banking of Farage takes these developments still further. He lost his account owing to his exercise of free speech on issues, not least Brexit, over which reasonable Britons disagree. He wasn’t involved in any febrile street movement (not that that should ever justify losing one’s bank account). Nor was the decision taken at the behest of any public, governmental authority subject to democratic accountability.

The de-banking of Farage is thus an especially glaring case of what I call private tyranny: the unjust and often-systematic coercion that suffuses our lives as workers and consumers.

The prevailing market ideology conditions us to think of coercion as something only states do — especially dictatorial regimes in places such as China and Russia. The market, we tell ourselves, couldn’t possibly be a site of coercive tyranny. After all, our banks, insurers, employers and social-media platforms don’t wield an army or police force. Our market relations with these entities are governed by “consent”, and because the private sector is divided between numerous competing actors, no single one of them can oppress us.

But tyranny needn’t always take the form of a Communist apparatchik pulling your fingernails in a dark basement. Equally effective, and arbitrary, can be the bank that suddenly makes it impossible for you to participate in financial life, the literal medium of market society. Or the Silicon Valley oligarch who can effectively un-person you by removing your presence from the digital public square (and citing Tolstoy-length, non-negotiable “Terms of Service” against which there is no meaningful appeal).

Precisely because it takes place in a “private” sphere, this form of tyranny can’t be challenged in court or at the ballot box. It’s a game of power politics where one side lacks the power to play while the other is set up to win. And the sheer number and diversity of market tyrants means private tyranny eludes normal democratic mechanisms.

So how do we respond? In the case of banking (and social media), it would suffice to insist on the carrier doctrine, deeply embedded in English and American common law, which says that such services, though privately provided, aren’t allowed to discriminate against different members of the public. Many other economic benefits would follow if banking returned to its former status as more or less a heavily regulated public utility.

But to achieve such reforms, we have to start by approaching market relations with greater realism than is permitted by the Reaganite-Thatcherite ideology promoted by Farage himself. For coercion underpins every market transaction, almost always favouring the asset-rich over the asset-less. Coercion as such is inevitable in human affairs, very much including our economic lives. To recognise this means to insist that politics compasses market life. Or to put it another way, we don’t give up justice, due process, give-and-take, and other hallmarks of a decent society when we enter the private sector.