Book review: Democracy for Sale, by Peter Geoghegan

Corruption has always been a feature of politics, but a new book from Peter Geoghegan shows just how all-pervasive it has become in recent years. Review by Elsa Maishman

Democracy Fro Sale, by Peter Geoghegan

Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale is a damning insight into the dark money which underpins huge areas of global politics. From law-bending to lawbreaking, via loopholes, shady deals and revolving doors, Geoghegan guides us through the ugly side of modern politics – or indeed, politics full-stop, as political corruption is hardly a new invention.

What is new are the increasingly intricate ways in which funding, influence and connections can be obscured or disguised, and the growing global reach of secretive financial influence. A significant portion of the book is devoted to the use of new technology to disguise dark money, and the entanglement of social networks in spreading advertising and misinformation whose origin is undeclared. The book, which was written in January but whose publication was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, foreshadows the findings of the Russia report by parliament’s intelligence and security committee released in July.

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Some of the names which feature prominently will be familiar – Dominic Cummings, Aaron Banks, Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and Vladmir Putin. The names of a few less well-known individuals also crop up again and again in an alarmingly intertwined web of connections, friendships and professional networks. The book is primarily focused on the crisis within British politics, but makes extensive comparison to the United States and several countries in Europe, including illuminating case studies of the populist Vox in Spain and Five Star Movement in Italy, as well as the rise of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. The comparisons to the US are both enlightening and alarming, as they paint a picture of a more extreme situation towards which Britain may easily be heading.

Geoghegan has spent years reporting on dark money in politics for openDemocracy, where he is investigations editor – in 2014 he published a book about the Scottish Independence referendum. In Democracy for Sale he draws on a wide pool of data and sources, some of whom give him extensive quotes and information. He skilfully weaves shocking statistics about obscene amounts of money or numbers of targeted advertising messages with case studies, charting a few individual stories as a window into activity carried out on a much wider scale.

While Geoghegan is most critical of those who give and receive dark money, he is also damning of the regulators, who in many cases move painfully slowly, then either fail to reach a conclusion or levy fines so small as to be chicken feed for the wealthy rulebreakers. As he points out, these regulatory bodies are often operating with a fraction of the employees and the budgets afforded by the companies and individuals they are trying to regulate. In many cases even this does not seem to matter, as those using undocumented money to influence politics and voter opinions are operating through loopholes and in unregulated spaces and have not actually broken the law in the first place.

Democracy for Sale is a dispiriting read, exposing a rot which seems to have spread throughout politics across the western world and whose stranglehold appears to be growing. This is what makes it so vital, as in a world where many of us are powerless against the might of big tech companies, power-grabbing individuals or lying governments, information about the situation we find ourselves in and how we got here is a precious asset. It is easy to feel as though the tide of dark money and blatant misinformation has won, but Geoghegan’s words are those of someone who is prepared to keep fighting to defend and revitalise what shadows of democracy still remain.

Democracy For Sale, by Peter Geoghegan, Head of Zeus, 240pp, £14.99

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