(PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

July 27, 2023   3 mins

The debanking of Nigel Farage demonstrates the power of a law that is already being enforced without having been formalised. Found guilty of crimes by state censors, secret committees of bureaucrats, or inscrutable algorithms, individuals can be disconnected and de-personed by institutions that they didn’t realise possessed such powers. Today it is banks terminating customers for their beliefs; tomorrow it may be primary schools and hospitals. The powerful consensus that once upheld the neutrality of key institutions as essential to maintaining peace in liberal societies is collapsing.

Belief in the value of neutrality was a hard-won product of bourgeoisie political revolutions and religious wars. Having lasted for centuries, it is teetering today under attack from two directions. On one side, a brand of political activism condemns the very idea of remaining neutral as being a cover for subjugation and exploitation. In this view, the passive act of not denying someone banking services is recast as an affirmative endorsement of their entire political outlook. Simultaneously, digital networks are thrusting formerly apolitical institutions into the general arena of public surveillance, where failure to affirm new ideological mantras is seen as an act of treason against the whole system.

Ironically, given its role as a pioneer of thought policing and financial cancellation, the Canadian government website hosts an astute paper on the techno-surveillance model pioneered by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). “Big data and the social credit system: The security consequences” argues that the purpose of the “social governance process” in China is “upholding the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling position: ensuring state security”. This is “not simply about domestic or foreign-security policy. In the PRC, internal and external are also about what is inside and outside of the CCP. The Party is protecting an ideas space not bounded by physical geography.” Security, in this context, is not measured by protecting Chinese citizens from outside attacks but, rather, by the state’s ability to exercise control over ideas, which it sees as essential to maintaining the party’s power.

The process is more decentralised in the US and UK than in China, but functionally the West’s policing of disinformation and illicit ideas, combined with punitive cancellations, achieves the same goal. Once seen as paragons of amoral profit seeking, banks now espouse “values” because they fear that to not do so would place them at risk of being deemed “distasteful” and “out-of-touch”. Those phrases, used by Farage’s bank to condemn him, are euphemisms for anything that threatens the ruling class ideology — something powerful institutions must avoid lest they be evicted from the palace of global technocracy. It is no coincidence that the most technologically advanced countries are also the most aggressive practitioners of de-banking.

Immediately after the January 6 riots in the US, PayPal and its subsidiary Venmo blocked the accounts of individuals and groups involved in organising the pro-Trump demonstrations, as well as a Christian crowdfunding site raising money for the protestors. GoFundMe said that it would remove fundraisers promoting conspiracy theories and “misinformation” about the 2020 election. Two years later, numerous people “prosecuted for low-level felonies and misdemeanours such as trespassing and disorderly conduct” at the Capitol “have been blacklisted by banks and shut out of social media fundraising services,” according to a recent report that cited a dozen such claims. In 2022, Justin Trudeau’s government used debanking to punish truck drivers engaged in mass protests. Canadian financial institutions cut standard payments as well as freezing cryptocurrency accounts used by the protestors. Tellingly, one of the first instances of de-banking targeted WikiLeaks, the organisation founded by Julian Assange, arguably the most powerful critic of the emerging alliance between tech monopolies and the national security state. In 2010, one month after Wikileaks published a trove of leaked State Department diplomatic cables, Paypal froze its account.

Ultimately, the driver of this new social reality is not radical activism but the power of the tech monopolies. Moralistic fervour is burning away centuries of tradition, leaving the digital oligarchs to claim the new territory. The world we are living in is the one they have authored. In the same way that railroads once changed the world by collapsing physical distances, social media has collapsed the spaces that once differentiated private from public, as well as separating institutional spheres of power. Thus financial disconnection can be used as a tactic of warfare against Russia as well as a domestic tool in every country where digital networks predominate.

In the US, the unprecedented coordination between the various sectors of the counter-disinformation complex, which includes the media, intelligence agencies, non-profits, and universities, testifies to the same principle at work. Connected by a lattice of digital networks, they reinforce the same belief system while wielding their power to attack people accused of wrongthink and spreading disinformation. Political censorship and financial disconnection are two sides of the same coin.

Today, organisations such as the World Economic Forum and World Bank are promoting global digital IDs as a progressive cause to help lift “unbanked” people out of poverty. Their solution would herd billions of people into globalised surveillance databases where their every transaction, movement, and sentiment can be monitored and analysed. If the spread of debanking shows that the danger today comes from an interconnected digital web reaching into the foundations of privacy and neutrality, the response of the global elite is to insist we build a bigger bank.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Writer at Tablet Magazine