The Rise of the Public-Private Partnership in Tyranny

Sep 25, 2023

This article originally appeared in the Brownstone Institute

The slogan cuius regio, eius religio (whose the reign/realm, his the religion) was adopted in Europe in the mid-16th century to end the religious wars. It was an agreement among the monarchs that he who governs the territory decides its religion. Faith therefore was not a matter of individual choice of beliefs, values, morality, and rituals. Rather, the subjects bowed to the superior power of the sovereign as his faithful followers. 

Adherents of other religions either fled to more congenial kingdoms or else risked being robbed of all property and perhaps even killed. In time, however, Church and state reached amicable separation and learnt to live in peaceful coexistence.

Looking around at the Western world today, it seems as though people, led by their political, intellectual, and cultural elites, are intent on reversing the gains of the Industrial Revolution, discarding the fruits of the Enlightenment and erasing long-established empirical knowledge with regard to basic biology. 

It seems the state in some countries might be enforcing its own new religion of belief systems and values articulated by a small elite that self-identifies as progressive social justice warriors. In this cause they have recruited private-sector companies to function as the 21st century equivalent of feudal dukes and overlords to enforce the core beliefs and rituals of the state-decreed religion, sometimes with cult-like attributes. 

In 2015 the University of California advised faculty and students to avoid causing offence by saying “There is only one race, the human race,” because it denies “the significance of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience and history.” More recently we had the example of a shock-inducing diversity workshop at Western University in Ontario, Canada with a slide giving as an example of microaggression the assertion that “the most qualified person should get the job.” 

As I continue to hold fast to both propositions, I guess I am beyond redemption. I console myself with the thought that Martin Luther King, Jr. would today be called out as a racist for his dream of a society where people are judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. The Western presentation also warned that “white silence, white privilege, and white shame leads to a lot of white complicity in white supremacy,” which does rather suggest an obsessive compulsive disorder focussed on whiteness.

The zeitgeist encourages the demonization of everything European and the romanticization of non-Western cultures and history. You can praise any culture in the world except Western but must blame only Western culture for all the world’s ills. The Albanese government wants to insert a new chapter in Australia’s constitution to create an Aboriginal body, called the Voice, to make representations to parliament and the government. The Liberal and National parties are opposed and opinion pollscurrently show more voters intending to reject than to endorse the constitutional amendment. 

The latest Newspoll (3 September) for the Australian has No jumping ahead 53-38. This is a dramatic reversal from the 56-37 support for Yes in February. Support has fallen also for the Labor Party and Prime Minister (PM) Anthony Albanese.

Universities are meant to be the bastions of academic freedom and robust policy debate. Australia’s university sector is essentially publicly funded. Not one university has taken a public position to oppose the Voice. But the senior leadership teams of several universities have put their full weight behind the Voice. Melbourne University, for example, did so on 7 March, months before anyone even knew the wording of the referendum question.

Nor have the universities’ public information sessions to promote dialogue on the contested policy initiative demonstrated a balance of speakers to argue the merits of both sides. As James Allan, a law professor at Queensland University, wrote in theAustralian, this is “not just a form of virtue signalling with other people’s money; it comes close to being an improper use of taxpayer money.” 

Worse, the fear among academics that speaking publicly against the Voice could damage their careers has a chilling effect and promotes preemptive self-censorship. It’s telling that the author of an article on this subject, writing for the Spectator Australia, chose to remain anonymous. My article in the Weekend Australian on 29 July elicited many supportive messages from university colleagues, along with regrets that they dared not voice their opposition publicly.

Corporations, on the other hand, engage in virtue signalling with shareholders’ money. In Australia this includes Qantas, once publicly owned but now a private company. The airline is giving yes campaigners, but not opponents, free flights to travel the country in their promotional efforts and has painted several planes with the Yes slogan. 

Yet, on 31 August, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the consumer watchdog, launched legal proceedings against Qantas for defrauding the public by continuing to sell tickets for cancelled flights for up to two weeks after, and for delaying notification of cancelled scheduled flights to thousands of existing ticket-holders. 

The airline has been exceptionally tardy in processing refunds for flights cancelled during the pandemic disruptions. The ACCC wants Qantas to pay a fine of over AUD 250 million. The airline is also hoarding half a billion dollars of unrefunded customer money from flights that were cancelled during the lockdowns. Thus, far from a virtuous corporate entity, Qantas has been severely infected with the culture of arrogance.

In some ways the biggest shock that genuinely has acted as a wake-up call for millions was the debanking of the well-known British politician Nigel Farage in June by Coutts Bank, a subsidiary of the National Westminster Bank. NatWest, as it is commonly called, is 39 percent owned by the British government after the public bailout of its predecessor Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008, which was renamed NatWest in 2020. 

Having compiled an extensive, 40-page Stasi-style surveillance report on Farage, the bank concluded that his views did not align with their values as an “inclusive” organization (yes, really). Then its CEO – a Dame, no less – lied in a private briefing to a BBC journalist to claim he had lost his account for falling below its minimum threshold but was caught out in the lie and forced to resign – but with a generous payout.

In truth Farage was cast out because of wrongthink: for leading Brexit, supporting Donald Trump, and opposing Black Lives Matter (BLM). The defenestration was based on a dossier written seemingly by a pink conquistador that was a tawdry, political hit job. 

Laughably, the reputational-risk committee that engaged in this Kafkaesque parody ended up destroying the reputation of the bank, whose clients have included Mafia bosses, dictators, and Russian oligarchs. Karma bites. (By the way, in Hinduism karma does not mean destiny independently of your actions. Rather, it means the opposite: you cannot escape but are destined to reap the consequences of your actions.)

The debanking scandal also highlighted the risk of the trend to a cashless society in the age of growing digitization. We have been seduced by the conveniences of digitized life oblivious, like frogs in boiling water, to the threats to privacy and, more critically, the enhanced capacity of corporate and state actors not just to engage in surveillance of our activities and preferences, but also to cut us off from financial life support. 

From there to China’s social credit system is but a short step. Canada gave us a foretaste of that with government-directed financial sanctions on the truckers’ Freedom Convoy and anyone who had donated to their cause, no matter how modest the amount or how indigent their individual circumstances. Few governments or financial institutions seem at all bothered with the multiple inconveniences inflicted on the elderly by the rapid move to a cashless society.

The faddish causes to which corporates are increasingly attracted and which they support financially include the ESG (environmental and social governance) and DIE (diversity, inclusion, and equity) agendas. The Human Resources departments of public and private sector, media, and sporting institutions have been captured by proliferating numbers of DIE ‘experts’ who increasingly rule the roost over staff engaged in merely the core mission of the institutions. 

This includes signing on to the central tenets of the social justice agenda of critical race theory, an open-ended rainbow spectrum of gender identity, #MeToo, and BLM. Financial institutions and companies divesting from fossil fuel industries in pursuit of Net Zero is another example.

How about banks concentrate on banking services and Qantas on flying planes on time, without losing luggage and at reasonable prices?

The bigger picture is the rise of corporate fascism that fuses the power of the state, corporations (including media corporations), social media, and technology giants. This was most clearly evident in their concerted coercion on all matters related to Covid but clearly is poised to embrace pretty much all of social life. 

Call it the public-private tyranny partnership. Traditionally coercion and tyranny have been the preserve of states, with citizen consent the exclusive preserve of liberal democratic states. The private sector has been the domain of choice and competition where the customer is always right. Now the citizen must hew to state-dictated morality and the customer must bow to the corporate moral compass.

Paraphrasing Mao Zedong, do morals grow from the dollar-encrusted barrels of corporate guns wielded by executives aided and abetted by their DIE staff? They who hold and use political, economic, and cultural power get to set and control the moral compass for society, and all must bow down to this, or else?

The puzzle is why public and corporate sector executives believe they have the qualifications, training, skills, and judgment to set the moral compass for society at large. This is especially so when their values are in fact out of alignment with the dominant values of the society in which they operate. They and their boards are chosen for their business and management expertise and competence to create value-added products and deliver services. 

Their capacity to set ethical standards even for the company employees, let alone for their customers, is highly suspect. I am not aware of any university setting up a task force of eminent ethicists to set university policy on contested morals with regard to race, gender identity, and Covid-related mandates. 

On what basis does an Australian university choose to honour the president of Ukraine with a Zoom public lecture but ban contacts with Russian scholars? And that too without consulting or in any way involving its in-house International Relations experts?

How then do we derisk society from the looming threat of corporate fascism? The scope for individual action is limited but not nonexistent. After PayPal closed down the account of the Free Speech Union in the UK, and of all activities associated with its founder Toby Young including the Daily Sceptic, I closed my PayPal account (this requires some perseverance). 

Now when confronted with a PayPal portal for paying for a purchase from an Australian store or hotel, I call the provider and ask for bank details to make an electronic transfer, explaining my opposition to use a politicized financial service provider. If no alternative is available, I switch to another provider. For similar reasons, I no longer use GoFundMe and have stopped watching the Australian cricket team since they began taking the knee before every game. The choice for each one of us is to go along with the cancellation mob in order to get an easy ride, or to put up with added inconvenience in order to set things right again.

The more effective avenue for large-scale change, however, is through political choices. The cultural elites may well feel morally superior to the hoi polloi and console themselves with the thought that they are on the right side of history. 

Meanwhile, though, they are decidedly on the wrong side of the people. By contrast, politicians like Giorgia Meloni, who became popular enough to become prime minister of Italy by appealing to family, faith, and country – values that do align with that of most voters – are derided and mocked as mere populists.

The governing Conservative Party in the UK has lagged 20 points behind Labour in the polls for months. Its best and perhaps only hope for shaking things up is to challenge the received truths in regard to racial justice, gender identity, and environmental agendas and revert to the Meloni formula, abandon Net Zero, end coercion in directing consumers away from stable and inexpensive sources of energy, reaffirm basic biological facts, protect women’s rights to safe spaces and dignity, and end woke policing and cancel culture in all public institutions. 

So far PM Rishi Sunak and his cabinet ministers have engaged in brave talk but failed to take urgent and demonstrably effective action. Were the Tories to succeed in reversing their sliding fortunes in the UK, the reverberations would be felt across the Western democratic world.