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Soapbox: Creeping authoritarianism

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T  he first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are – Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor 161-180.

 

It never rains but it pours. The world feels as though it is being governed by old men whose instincts are mean-spirited, oppressive… brutal. The final frames of the 2019 movie Joker, when Gotham city is on fire and Joaquin Phoenix (who gives a terrific performance as the Joker) jumps on the roof of a car to the accolade of the rampaging crowd is starting to feel prescient.

Russia’s President Putin has arranged a new constitution such that he will be able to remain in office until 2036 – by which time he would be 83. Xi Jingping, now 67, can remain President of China for life. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is only 54 – but he wrecked his country in his determination to cling to power. Under the weight of Covid-19, Syria has disappeared from mainstream media.

Not that governance seems much more accountable closer to home. In November the US faces an unviable choice for its next President – either a man who would be 78 years old when he took office, or a man who (to leave aside much else) would not only be 75 but has proved that he has authoritarian instincts.

President Trump’s insistence that the US state gets a share of the cash Microsoft might pay to buy TikTok from its Chinese owner ByteDance, announced on Twitter, as is usual in his government style, has been likened to a mafia grab.

Huge debts, big worries

Confidence in government is critical. If we lose that confidence then a Joker-style abyss is not far off. That’s already happening in Minsk, Beirut, has happened in Damascus. Meanwhile the world’s attention is focused on Covid-19. It brings to mind the UK government aide who said, on 11 September 2001: “it is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”.

As the world sinks into greater debt, governments are perhaps understandably more focused on fiscal deficits – the amount they spend over the money they take in from taxes – than signs of creeping authoritarianism which they may be impotent to counteract.

In the UK, government support for businesses, individuals, and public services to help them through the paralysed economy totalled almost £190 billion at the start of July. In June the US budget deficit was $864 billion, a record high. The fiscal response from the Covid-19 pandemic runs into the trillions of dollars for just 12 countries, according to Breugel, the Brussels-based economic think-tank.

Whether it is the presidential election in Belarus – so reminiscent of Soviet-style politics – or the deadly explosion in Lebanon and dramatic resignation of a government long seen as corrupt, the world feels much darker than just a few months ago.

Gold transcends the noise

Authoritarian governments can impose their will, for a time at least. Whether you live in one or the other, you need to protect yourself, by turning to a reliable form of money – gold. The price goes up, it goes down, but it always has potency, whatever the surrounding context. It retains that potency because gold is outside the control of any government.

Governments under stress have confiscated gold in the past. In April 1933 the Democrat President F.D.R. Roosevelt signed executive order 6102, forbidding the holding of gold by private citizens on pain of a $10,000 fine and/or five to ten years’ jail. Not until 1974 was holding gold of any type legal in the US. In China, several major banks have now barred customers from buying gold through them. It would seem that the only way to ‘control’ gold and its potential as a new currency, would be to ban its use altogether. Only extremely desperate governments or those that are authoritarian, who stand in fear against freedom and democracy, are likely to impose such measures.

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