Are libertarians to blame for everything? Sorry, but no

When the Soviet bloc crumbled in 1989, there was a temptation to believe that democracy and economic success were inseparable bedfellows. Francis Fukuyama wrote his infamous book on the point, The End of History and the Last Man, which predicted the permanent victory of liberal democracy over socialist dictatorships. The rise of China put paid to that theory, proving that you can have capitalism without democracy. But Quinn Slobodian goes one further, and asserts that the Chinese model – in micro-form – is where the entire world is headed.

His thesis is that we overestimate the durability of the liberal-democratic nation state. The world, Slobodian argues, is becoming divided into “zones” rather than countries – zones, that is, where capitalism is allowed to run riot over the interests of the people. This is not a new phenomenon: the City of London, for example, has long been run by a corporation which, unlike a normal borough council, sets the votes of commerce above those of local residents. But the idea of the special economic zone has been revived in recent times, from Hong Kong to Rishi Sunak’s freeports.

Slobodian, a Canadian writer who is “Professor of Ideas” at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, is not an advocate of these zones; rather, he sees them as creeping dystopias. He’s right that some business people find democracy a bit of a pain, and rather admire the Chinese way of suppressing dissent against development. Who wouldn’t momentarily feel this way if, for example, their plans for a job-creating industrial park were held up by the protests of a handful of local residents, or by rules protecting a species of dormouse which hasn’t been spotted in the area for half a century? Slobodian quotes, for example, Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to Donald Trump, saying “capitalism is a lot more important than democracy”.

Crack-Up Capitalism makes some fair points. Some of the places that inspire free-market libertarians to dream of escaping the plodding social-democratic Western nation-state turn out to be less red-blooded than is often imagined: in Singapore, for example, 80 per cent of the population lives in social housing. And Slobodian takes us on an interesting journey through the minds of capitalists who imagine countries led by CEOs rather than elected politicians, US secessionists who want white-supremacist states to withdraw from the union, and Brexiteers who hope to create Singapore-on-Thames. (He also introduces us to some fruitcakes who see their ranch as their own personal, independent state.) And he brought my attention to some socio-economic experiments of which I was unaware, such as Prospera, a semi-autonomous zone of Honduras run by a venture-capital company.

But to sustain his thesis, it is necessary for Slobodian to stitch together some pretty disparate things. Do the millions of Americans who live in gated estates really see themselves as part of a movement that includes the libertarian dreamers who headed to Somalia when the government there collapsed? Dubai might be lacking a little in the democratic department, but that certainly isn’t true of all tax havens: I doubt the Bailiwick of Jersey would see itself as a haven of capitalism without democracy.

Slobodian fails to convince us that the nation-state is giving way to privately-run zones. The current trend is in the other direction: the US and the EU are sharpening their claws against tax havens. He even concedes that many of his zones are not secessionist: they exist because they perform a function for the nation-state of which they form a part. I don’t think a freeport on Teeside is really going to float away from the United Kingdom. At the end, Solobodan comes full circle: he proposes that “the United States itself looks more like a zone all the time”. That rather undermines the idea that the world is atomising into medieval-style statelets – and there, the strained thread that was trying to hold this book together finally snapped.

Crack-Up Capitalism is published by Penguin at £25.00. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books