Corporate thought police

I grew up during the Cold War, when Eastern Europe seemed just a foggy buffer zone between the Soviets and us. We were taught that life under communism meant a total loss of freedom: of career or residence, of action or thought. We read George Orwell and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Koestler and Camus. In France, where I spent holidays, the experience of totalitarianism was still a fresh wound.

The threat was real and existential. It did not fade until those extraordinary days when Hungarians, Poles and East Germans started to break out of their prison, thought-first.

Adapted from the novel and illustrated by Frederic Guimont

Orwell’s Thought Police came to mind when I read that nearly 300 uniformed enforcement officials have been employed to prevent possible violations of the Olympics brand licensing. In order to protect the commercial interests of the sponsors – who have contributed only about a tenth of the cost of the London games – people are to be denied the right to express themselves freely. This is apparently necessary in a world of ambush marketing, where lawyers aggressively defend corporate brands (though one can still ask about the value of such a world).

But it is one thing to prevent a business from stealing a marketing opportunity its rival has paid for and quite another to prevent a woman carrying the Olympic torch from wearing a charity bracelet. Elsewhere the ‘Lympic Café has been forced to remove the first letter of its name, police have been told to eat crisps from plain bags while patrolling the rowing at Eton and a florist in Stoke on Trent has been refused permission to display the Olympic rings.

On 20 July, the Chairman of the London Organising Committee told BBC Radio that people wouldn’t be allowed into the Olympic Stadium wearing Pepsi T-shirts, though this was subsequently denied by LOCOG, who reassured visitors that ‘as an individual you are free to wear clothing of your choice‘, which is at least consistently liberal.

Some brand enforcement tales probably belong to the category of urban myths, but Marketing Week, which presumably understands these things, lists the best absurdities. And though they are indeed absurd, they are also real infringements of people’s liberty to take part in what is supposed to be an altruistic celebration of what is best in the human spirit.

All this so that, as we admire the extraordinary efforts and abilities of the world’s greatest sports people, we remember the good things brought to us by Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Cadbury’s. In 1984, Big Brother repeatedly tells the people:


Today, the mantra might be:


Newspeak indeed.

The collapse of Soviet communism was a great moment. It transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people, not instantly, not easily, but profoundly for the better.  But it was also a huge trap for the West, into which we duly leapt. If we had won, it could only be because we were right. So were born the End of History, the Washington Consensus and the Clash of Civilisations. Hubris flooded our veins like alcohol. Financial capitalism, already loosened, was unbridled, with the consequences we now know.

In 1952, as the struggle between liberal capitalism and totalitarian communism was being defined, Raymond Aron, taught that democracy was the best possible system of government, principally because it was the most effective at limiting the state’s abuse of its power over individuals. But he also told his students that, unlike Marx, he was not a historical optimist so he did not take its ultimate triumph for granted.

It is a great pity that those who thought in 1989 that they had won because they were right did not pay more attention to Aron. Today, as Western nations come to understand just how much power democratically elected politicians have conceded to secretive, unaccountable corporations, and how much their commercial interests may diverge from the common good, perhaps they will re-examine their recent history.

If they do, they may see that it was capitalism that triumphed in 1989, not democracy, and that the two are not the same thing.