It’s Time to Stop Despairing
By Duncan Whitmore
It is difficult not to feel despondent when considering the enormous loss of liberty that has been inflicted by government lockdown policies in response to COVID-19. This despair has been compounded for many on the right by the final failure of Donald Trump’s attempt to challenge November’s presidential election result, together with the sudden, panicked attempt to remove him from office just days before his term expires, as well as the purging of him and prominent cheerleaders from social media. In this vein, the following quotations – all from prominent libertarians or conservative-libertarians – are not unrepresentative:
“2021 is going to be worse than 2020. Sorry”
“You ain’t seen nothing yet: the worst is yet to come”
“The lockdown is permanent, get used to it. It is all about political control. NOBODY HEALTHY IS DYING.”
It is true that any opponents of lockdown policies need to have a realistic grasp of why these draconian policies have been resorted to and how the situation is likely to pan out. Indeed, enough is now known about COVID-19 for us to be well past the point of lending the state the benefit of the doubt in its decision to continue with those policies. Thus, explanations other than the protection of health must be sought.
Nevertheless, the amount of time spent despairing is beginning to come at the expense of time that could be spent working out how to fight back. Happily, Sean Gabb has helped to buck the trend by offering some reasons as to why the past year has not been all that bad. While Gabb acknowledges that his personal circumstances have contributed much to his relatively sanguine view, it is, nevertheless, a refreshing counterbalance to the torrent of doomerism that seems to be erupting from the right.
For instance, Gabb points out that 2020 saw fewer wars, and – while the whole schools fiasco is a useful tool with which to berate lockdown policies – the actual loss of children’s school time is not something that libertarians should be particularly concerned about. “Nothing worth knowing is taught in a year of schooling that cannot be picked up in a few hours of reading” and children spared incarceration in state run schools “are that much less likely to grow into the obedient and unquestioning citizen-workers their parents have been.”
More importantly, Gabb offers the following, broad assessment:
Though probably not a serious threat, the Coronavirus has been a useful test of the British State. It has failed this at every level. Whatever it has tried has been weighed down by incompetence and corruption. It may be that a crisis of legitimacy will be put off in England by an unexpectedly good performance in the manner of our leaving the European Union. In other countries, the authorities have less to show against their failings.
The natural result of the past year will be a withdrawal from those patterns of interaction that are easily monitored and controlled by the authorities, and by a pervasive distrust of the authorities. The game between abused and abusers will not end. But those of us who want no part of it should see that we are entering 2021 with at least a greater potential for living free than would otherwise have been the case.
The remainder of this essay will explain why this view may turn out to be generally correct, even though the path ahead is likely to be rocky. Although much of what will be said are points that I have made in previous essays, bringing together some of these thoughts into one place should provide us with a firmer foundation on which to consider how these policies – as well as the increasing loss of our freedoms more generally – can be defeated.
The Weakness of Establishment Statism
First, states imposing lockdowns are not acting from a position of strength. If all of this was really about controlling a virus it would have been in the state’s interest to avoid disruption to every day life so as to keep the population as sedated as possible, possibly to the extent of downplaying, instead of exaggerating, the viral threat. Preventing anything from rocking the luxury liner is the priority when the system is working for the state’s beneficiaries, as we can see from some of the objectives listed in the UK government’s 2011 influenza pandemic plan:
- Supporting the continuation of everyday activities as far as practicable;
- Upholding the rule of law and the democratic process;
- Promoting a return to normality and the restoration of disrupted services at the earliest opportunity;
- The UK Government does not plan to close borders, stop mass gatherings or impose controls on public transport during any pandemic.
Instead of the focus on maintaining normal life, the state has reacted to COVID-19 as if it is facing an existential crisis not dissimilar to a foreign invasion: total subjugation of the entire economy to the government’s priorities; rampant propaganda and shameless censorship of dissent; prioritising the achievement of pre-ordained goals at the expense of objective debate; de facto rule by ministerial decree; heavy, extra-judicial punishments for non-compliance; suspension of and delay to elections (while those that go ahead have their legitimacy challenged); the legal system refusing to intervene; massive money printing; and so on. Thus, it is state power that is teetering on the edge of losing control, and it is this that is the real panic. But to understand this requires a broad appreciation of the context.
Every now and then throughout the course of history, societies experience a fundamental transformation of the existing polity. In recent history, we can cite the Protestant Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, World War One, and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe as turning points during which the basic relationship between the rulers and the ruled was changed.
The four, fateful years of World War One brought a close to the relatively peaceful and prosperous era that had persisted throughout most of the nineteenth century, marking also the final end to monarchism as the dominant form of government. In its place was birthed various forms of socialism. On the one hand, you had countries which opted for direct control of the means of production, such as Soviet Russia. But on the other, there was a more insidious form of socialism that took hold in the West, one which is based upon mass democracy, inflationary paper money and welfare statism. Owing to the fact that it has left nominal private ownership and free exchange intact, this system has been easy to camouflage as “capitalism”, “the free market” or even just “freedom”, and has successfully convinced many Western citizens that that is precisely what it is – something that has proven to be a convenient escape hatch for governments needing to blame their failures on “too much freedom”. However, the system is more accurately referred to by terms such as state corporatism, inflationary socialism, or crony capitalism.
Under this system, the means of production remain, as we said, in private hands, but direct regulatory privilege together with the state’s control over the flow of inflationary finance has meant that a handful of key corporations and industries – notably finance, communications and information technology – owe their power and status to political influence rather than to the preferences of consumers. The bank bailouts in 2008 were one of the first, highly visible indications of this unpleasant truth. Since then, we have noticed it in a piecemeal form with the way that large corporations bend over backwards to demonstrate their woke credentials, which most of their customers are likely to have little time for. But we have experienced another deluge this past week with the co-ordinated wave of big tech censorship, including the ejection of Donald Trump from Twitter, and the systematic banning of alternative social media site Parler by Google, Apple and Amazon. Such a co-ordinated attack designed to suppress rather than to serve the huge, potential customer base of Trump supporters is highly unlikely to have been possible in a genuine free market. In which universe would an entire, competitive industry jettison one of its biggest star attractions? Thus, these corporations should properly be regarded not as creations of the free market but as de facto extensions of the state.
The West spent the interwar period working out the precise configuration of this form of socialism, with fascism and Nazism emerging as the most potent, anti-democratic guises. From a purely ideological perspective (and without meaning to trivialise the horrific levels of death and destruction that ensued), World War Two was more akin to a family feud than to the clash of civilisations that it has subsequently been painted as. Everybody during this period was moving towards some form of economic collectivism, a fact which explains why opposition to Hitler from the democracies prior to the war was relatively mute. In fact, the progression of our form of collectivism has put us perilously close to mimicking the 1930s dictatorships: our governance has evolved into forms that insulate themselves from democratic pressure; dissenting voices are suppressed, demonised, censored and cancelled; the police and security services have been granted excessive powers of surveillance and control; and political battle lines have been drawn in terms of identity, race, gender and other immutable characteristics. The tragic irony is that those championing these abominations think that they are fighting fascism.
The 1980s to early 1990s saw the purging of direct socialism as a result of reform in China, and of collapse in Soviet Russia – the latter of which was a relatively peaceful affair because the beneficiaries of the system were largely reconciled to the inevitability of the transition. Contemporaneously, direct socialism in the West in the form of nationalisation of industry was also under ideological attack from the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher following the economic stagnation of the 1970s.
However, rather than the fall of communism marking the “end of history” and the permanent victory of Western liberal democracy, it was in fact a half job. For the diluted form of socialism in the West – a form left fundamentally intact by Reaganism and Thatcherism – was also destined to failure and rejection; it has simply taken longer to get there on account of its relative advantages.
We are now experiencing this collapse and rejection of the Western form of socialism, specifically of the inflationary financial system and its failure to sustain the illusion of general prosperity. This is in tandem with the rejection, by voters, of globalised political institutions run by an increasingly remote and alien political/technocratic elite in favour of more local political structures that recognise national and traditional cultures. This process probably began in earnest with the 2008 housing market crash, but voters made it explicit with their 2016 votes for Brexit and for Donald Trump as US President. Thus, everything that is happening now has to be understood in this context of power slipping away from an established order.
Unfortunately, the difference between 1989 and now is that the current beneficiaries of the existing power structure are not willing to contemplate a transition that would risk robbing them of power. They are exerting greater control now for the purposes of their self-preservation, a control which has been facilitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear that they do not believe they have the luxury of waiting, for if they had they would have held out for a “better” crisis rather than pouncing on the relatively flimsy threat of COVID-19. Instead, they have had to make the best of what they are given so that, even if the COVID-19 narrative dissolves sooner than they would prefer, they may at least have laid down as many precedents as possible that would allow them to establish a future system in which their power and control is maintained.
Instead of focussing on the usurpation of rights and freedoms as a reason to despair, we need to work out how to use this relative weakness of the current system to our advantage, ensuring that the twilight of the present order gives way to a dawn of freedom rather than the perpetual night of tyranny. In other words, while a transition to a different polity is likely to be unavoidable by now, the relatively weak position of the current power structure does not make a segue into some kind of “Great Reset”, or to any other kind of digital dystopia inevitable.
Evil vs. Incompetence
To compound the state’s position of relative weakness, it is important to realise that the state does not have complete and utter control over everything and everyone, as if all it has to do is flick a few switches and, voila, its aims are accomplished. At the very least, we must stop thinking that “conspiracy” and “cock-up” are mutually exclusive explanations for everything that transpires.
It is, of course, naïve to think that power through the state is not sought for nefarious ends, but at the same time those who push the notion that every event is following a neatly, pre-ordained plan must first of all remember that power is an eliminative, zero-sum game. So while those who seek power may agree on a relative handful of broad aims, once the question of how power should be exercised becomes more detailed then the powerful start to become more like competitors rather than allies. In other words, they will eventually have to spend more time fighting each other than they do fighting us. It is, in fact, a small blessing that those who seek to destroy our freedoms are not one, homogenous blob.
For instance, over in the US, what we tend to refer to as “the left” is actually a mixture of the Wall Street/Davos establishment crowd, harder economic leftists such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and harder cultural leftists such as BLM and Antifa. Joe Biden was probably the most inoffensive presidential candidate for each of these groups, but he is less of a unifying factor than their collective hatred for Donald Trump. So once the latter is out of office, we shouldn’t be surprised if significant fissures start to emerge between them.
A broader example is the rise of China, which, together with the ties of Western elites to the Chinese state and the mimicking of lockdown policies after COVID-19 erupted in Wuhan, is an issue to which those on the right are starting to draw attention. For instance, as of the time of writing, Nigel Farage’s pinned tweet on his Twitter account states that “Stopping China is the next big battle to fight”. However, such a homogenising view fails to grasp the complexities of the situation.
On the one hand, it is likely that Western elites admire and seek to emulate the Chinese state, something which epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, whose projections were used to justify COVID lockdowns, admitted quite openly as a reason for adopting the lockdown route. But as one political scientist has pointed out, China is also a threat to liberal democracy as the legitimising factor of Western political power, to global, American-led hegemony, and so also to all of the wealth and privilege that flows to the beneficiaries of this power structure:
What will it say about the American system if the U.S. is no longer the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, having been surpassed by a country that became the dominant power in East Asia without even paying lip service to democratic ideals? […] Americans themselves might begin asking themselves difficult questions about how well they have been served by their own system.
While most Americans will never experience a ride on a Chinese bullet train and remain oblivious in differences in areas like infrastructure quality, major accomplishments in highly visible frontiers like space travel or cancer treatment could drive home the extent to which the U.S. has fallen behind. Under such conditions, the best case scenario for most Americans would be a nightmare for many national security and bureaucratic elites: for the U.S. to give up on policing the world and instead turn inward and focus on finding out where exactly our institutions have gone wrong.
Whether this view is entirely accurate is really beside the point. It is enough to question big, homogenising narratives of how power works, demonstrating that its very nature means that the powerful are destined to treat each other with a mixture of friendliness on the one hand and antipathy on the other. Such a synthesis of conflicting attitudes towards China is what we can expect from Western leaders in the near future. Similarly, therefore, there is likely to be no completely unified agreement on the execution of lockdown policies or even on precisely what they are intended to achieve.
In any case, not every rich and powerful person necessarily believes that subjecting the world to some kind of despotic control is the way forward. As a New York real estate billionaire, Donald Trump’s paper credentials would put him firmly in the camp of the ruling oligarchy, and yet his leadership of the populist resistance has turned him into a persecuted pariah. Elon Musk – now the wealthiest billionaire of them all – has been a gnawing thorn in the side of the pandemic narrative, having slammed lockdowns, derided test results as “bogus”, as well as intending to refuse a vaccine. Within the past week, he has warned of the dangers of big tech censorship while promoting alternatives such as the “Signal” messaging app. Particularly if he was to partner with Trump in creating alternative, social media platforms, it wouldn’t be surprising if Musk was to end up inheriting some of Trump’s populist mantle. Similar renegades and sceptics are likely to exist further down the pecking order of prestige, their true numbers hidden by the cult of intimidation and fear that is bullying any potential dissenters into silence. As a former Supreme Court justice, Lord Jonathan Sumption, for instance, is a retired member of the state, yet has been one of the most principled critics of lockdown policies.
Even then, however, regardless of whether those holding wealth and power can unify around a single aim, it must always be remembered that the state (holding the de jure power through which such aims must be achieved) is still an incompetent and inefficient machine which will always frustrate the implementation of any plans. In addition, the more its power grows the more that minor mistakes and blunders produce unexpected and often embarrassing consequences. As a case in point, the British government ratcheted up the fear factor of a “new variant” of COVID-19 so as to justify cancelling the five-day relaxation of rules than had been planned for the Christmas period. But this had the effect of other countries closing their borders to both people and freight from the UK, risking shortages of fresh produce just days away from Christmas. Moreover, it would not be surprising if the kind of fiasco experienced with the “Test and Trace” system – which, at one point, was being run from an Excel spreadsheet – was to be replicated with the attempt to achieve mass vaccination (and hopefully also for any attempted “immunity passports”). So not only will the state struggle to complete its nefarious aims but the very picture of incompetence and inability will rob it of public trust.
A Cautionary Note on China
Given that we have mentioned the subject of China, it is worth pointing out that exaggeration of the Chinese threat risks leading the right into a trap. Certainly, Farage’s notion that China’s intention is to “take over the world” is, at this point, highly debatable, with any concrete examples appearing to be little different from (and relatively more modest) than the global hegemony that has been sought by the US.
But however much influence the Chinese state has, and however much that state may stand to benefit from Western demise, we have to remember that the enemies of freedom in the West are home grown. Brexit, for instance, took so long not because of the EU’s intransigence but because British Remainers did not want us to leave the bloc. Similarly, we are in a de facto police state because Western leaders made that choice; Western leaders are trying to stop, and reverse, the nationalist, populist and traditionalist sentiments that are sweeping through their countries; Western leaders are destroying our traditional rights and freedoms to preserve their own power; Western leaders are the ones who wish to “build back better” towards some green dystopia. Thus, the fact that Western leaders such as Boris Johnson (and possibly Joe Biden) are beginning to take an increasingly anti-Chinese stance should be greeted with some suspicion. Politicians are always keen to point to a foreign bogeyman to distract the citizenry from their domestic record. If a significant proportion of the right becomes convinced that the major threat is external then the result could be their rallying around the very leftist, lockdowning leaders they presently despise. If that was to transpire, it would disable the primary source of opposition to the consolidation of power sought by these leaders. Indeed, this has already happened before with the threat of Islamic terrorism: Western populations practically handed over their freedoms on a plate to the ramped up security state which has now proven to be a bigger danger than the problems people believed it was intended to address. However much of a threat China may prove to be in the future, the right cannot allow its spectre to serve as a cover for our own, domestic elites continuing to hollow out our societies from the inside.
Although the extent to which Western populations have willingly abandoned their liberty in the face of the ramped up COVID-19 threat is alarming, it has to be remembered that few people have had either the reason or opportunity to consider viruses as a political and ethical problem before now. It is extremely unlikely that similar lockdowns would have been tolerated if, say, the excuse had been an increase in the threat of terrorism or an escalation of the so-called “climate emergency”, issues with which everyone is familiar in evaluating risk. As preferable as it would be for all of the restrictions to be lifted right now, we are, unfortunately, going to have to give people time to learn.
Happily, such learning has happened before. In 1975, Britain voted overwhelmingly to remain in what was then the Common Market; in 2016 we voted to leave once the integrating nature of the European project had been realised. In 2003, the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” was embraced as the pretext to invade Iraq; the revelation of that falsehood has subsequently dampened the appetite for foreign interventionism, probably for a generation. In 1997, one of the war’s architects, Tony Blair, led a government that was brought to power by one of the largest landslides in British electoral history. Today, his name is ruined, his few appearances serving as the best advertisement for the opposite of what he says. Given the immediate and proximate effects of lockdown, we can expect the learning period to be much shorter than any of these examples.
People also tend to respond to such visible and proximate factors more than they do to distant and invisible ones. In fact, if this had been a real pandemic with an obvious increase in the loss of life, it would not have been necessary for the government to enforce many rules – people would have taken precautions voluntarily to protect themselves from a danger that they could see with their own two eyes. In contrast to this, as England enters its third, national lockdown, the police are asking for the right to invade people’s homes so as to enforce restrictions; Home Secretary Priti Patel is emphasising that people may be stopped in the street to “explain” their presence; journalist Peter Hitchens, a consistent opponent of lockdowns from the start, has warned of a “strong wave” of denunciations of dissent. All of this desperation shows that the government expects compliance to be lower this time round because people are realising that there is no particularly serious threat. Indeed, when the second, national lockdown officially ended in December, people were happy to crowd onto city centre streets to go Christmas shopping. This would not have happened in a real pandemic, and so it’s unlikely that a great many people continue to feel directly threatened by the virus.
Instead, lockdowns are bringing real and visible costs in the form of house arrest, lost jobs, closed businesses and the general deprivation of everything that makes life enjoyable in return for a benefit which is fast becoming imperceptible. The furlough scheme is probably the only thing preventing the balance from being tipped. The constant pummelling of fear of hospitals being overwhelmed and the moralising about “selfish behaviour” is a psychological weight that is also having an effect, but at some point it becomes counterproductive. Oversupply always diminishes value, and so a relentless fear factor that isn’t met by any perception of actual danger will eventually cause people to just switch off to the propaganda machine. In spite of this country’s obsession with its socialised health service, even the “Protect the NHS” mantra is likely to have a shelf life if people start to ask why the NHS cannot adapt to accommodate what is now a known medical problem. The attempted resurrection of the Thursday “Clap for Carers” ritual was also a damp squib.
Moreover, propaganda works only when people believe that they are voluntarily accepting the information offered. If censorship becomes too explicit and/or people realise that they are being told what to think, then it has the opposite effect of people defaulting to disbelief of the official narrative. The long term result of propaganda and censorship more generally is not to destroy dissenting voices but to inflame and intensify them, particularly when those voices are many in number. Thus, the more the state has to tighten its grip over that narrative the more likely it is that the truth will slip through its fingers.
In any case, it is likely that the majority of people still believe these restrictions to be a temporary affair. Commercial adverts on television do not, for the most part, show people wearing masks or “social distancing”. Airlines and travel companies are still trying to sell holidays for the coming summer, by which time Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary has predicted holidays will be back to normal. At the very least, it is going to be more difficult to convince people that restrictions to combat a serious virus – which is supposed to be a “once in a century” affair – should be normalised compared to restrictions to combat terrorism, a threat which could, in principle, strike at any time.
Instead of berating this expectation as naivety, we should see it as a possible source of resistance to any prospect of a permanent, “new normal”. States themselves are having to promise at least some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, even though that horizon is repeatedly being pushed farther into the future. Vaccines have had to be sold as a path to “getting back to normal”, a factor which may push the state into a corner if/when a certain rate of vaccination is achieved. Indeed, vaccinations and lockdowns could end up becoming competitors if the government believes that it has to make a choice between either one or the other. Most likely, the government would prefer that choice to be made in favour of continuing restrictions, given the extensive control that it lends to them. Ironically, therefore, over-promotion of vaccination as a solution to the crisis could end up killing the vaccine programme. However, such a significant back-pedalling could rob the government of all remaining public trust.
Another factor which could accelerate the loss of this public trust is that, as of January 1st, the UK’s Conservative government is no longer working towards achieving a Brexit deal. Amongst Leavers, the need to leave the EU on favourable terms has served as a shield for the rest of the government’s record. Indeed, the fact that Boris Johnson was still in his post-electoral honeymoon period when the virus crisis was ramped up back in March (and the fact that so many Leavers had invested themselves in the Boris myth) is one of the reasons why criticism, from the right, of the government’s COVID policy was relatively muted prior to the autumn. With Brexit now out of the way, the Johnson government is more dispensable than it was before, and COVID-19 will be the dominant issue that determines its popularity.
The Power of Minorities
Even if all of the foregoing was not true, successfully fighting the lockdown narrative isn’t necessarily reliant upon convincing a majority anyway. As we explained recently, the state itself (and those who benefit from it) consists of a minority, and is normally unseated not by armies of peasants brandishing torches and pitchforks, but by an equally powerful, opposing minority. The majority just has to acquiesce by sitting on the sidelines. Thus, the defeat of lockdown policies is likely to be more dependent upon whether this organised minority can be built and less upon the winning of as many “hearts and minds” as possible.
Those upon whom the state relies in order to do its bidding are a key group whose co-operation in resisting the lockdown narrative is likely to be essential. Three groups, in particular, spring to mind: first, the doctors and nurses who neither wish to be used as vaccine guinea pigs nor see the NHS turned into a national COVID service; second, the police who want to catch real criminals instead of seeking to punish ordinary people for everyday activities; and third, the teachers who do not wish to see their schools closed. Of these, doctors and nurses would be the most useful, given the heights to which their status has been exalted in pushing the propaganda. The state is only as powerful as those whom it needs to execute its commands and/or use as mascots. Thus, focussing on the encouragement of these groups to change their minds (or to speak out) is a far better use of time than trying to engage with the small cadre of loud mouthed, lockdown fanatics such as Piers Morgan, who – while they influence the views of millions – have pretty much sold their reputations on promoting the virus threat.
For decades, repeated cycles of ballot box bribery promising more spending and more free goodies – coupled with the veneer of legitimisation lent to the state by popular elections – has been the biggest enabler of state growth in the whole of human history. The multi-headed hydra of the modern state makes kings and emperors of prior centuries look like baby snakes in comparison. So effective has this been that democracy has been elevated to the level of an untouchable idol, the quintessential foundation for any political system that has rendered any alternative form of governance unthinkable.
However, now that electorates are actually voting for things that the establishment doesn’t like, democracy is proving to be something of a nuisance. These statists neither wanted to see Donald Trump elected to the US presidency nor could they stomach Brexit, but at the same time they cannot undo the fact that they themselves have entrenched democracy in the popular psyche as the necessary, legitimising element of all state power. The result of this is that, to get their own way, they are having to find methods of circumventing democracy (or otherwise undermine the democratic process) while at the same time pretending that they themselves are its true guardians.
In some ways, this is nothing new. All rulers in history, whether they were monarchs, dictators or democrats, have known that their power is sustained by the acceptance – and preferably the active enthusiasm – of those whom they rule. Thus, they have always been keen to exalt their actions as the fulfilment of the “will of the people”. Nevertheless, given that such an effort must now be made through the actual counting of ballots, the current crop of statists is struggling to pull this off as much as it would like.
In the UK, we saw this most recently with the four years of battling by the Remain establishment to reverse the 2016 vote to leave the EU. The reaction to this attempt was that Leave voters simply dug in their heels, reaffirming the decision at every opportunity, and ultimately making the terms of our departure much “harder” than they would have been had the Remainers simply relented back in 2016.
Over in the US, the recent presidential election has been mired by accusations of vote fraud in several of the key swing states which were sufficient to throw the race to Joe Biden. The mere assertion, by those who wish the result to stand, that there is “no evidence” of fraud will fail to reinvigorate any enthusiasm for the security of the electoral process. Whether their beliefs are reasonable or not, the fact that a significant number of voters do not regard the election as having been conducted fairly is itself a problem. An old legal adage states that “justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done”. In other words, it is not enough for a judge to arrive at a just result; the adjudicative process itself must be must be demonstrably fair and impartial. The same applies to political processes that seek to legitimise state power. The burden of proof is upon those who run elections (and those who claim electoral victory) to actively show that those elections are fair if they are to be trusted. Unless this is done, the belief that Biden is an illegitimate president will not go away once he has taken office on January 20th.
What we can see from all of this is that populations have become extremely sensitive to any attempt to undermine democratic processes, something which the establishment seems to be grudgingly aware of. Legally and constitutionally, the UK’s Remainer-dominated Parliament could have simply refused to implement the result of the 2016 referendum. However, only the dwindling Liberal Democrat Party thought that it could get away with this without holding a second referendum. To be sure, such a second vote too would have undermined democracy given that the results of a first vote must always be implemented before another can take place, but at least it could have been plausibly painted as democratic.
Recently, attempts by these very same, former Remainers to decry the breach of the US Capitol building on January 6th as an “assault upon democracy” has rightly been viewed as hypocrisy. But the fact that they have to go to such lengths to defend democracy and to paint their own actions to reverse the Brexit referendum as democratic – an effort which Brendan O’Neill regards as tantamount to rewriting political history – shows how vital they know democracy is to keep their party going.
As a result of this, it is likely that establishment interests have one of two options.
First, they could continue to ignore and/or undermine elections. If the view that democracy is the necessary, legitimising ingredient of state power proves to be immovable, then this option would risk leading to a withdrawal of the consent of the governed. The ultimate result of this could be secessions, revolutions or civil war.
Second, they can guarantee fair elections, but the cost will be suffering electoral defeats to their unpopular programmes. This may prove to be a restraining force upon any coming technocratic despotism in the near future, even though, for the time being, all forums for political speech are likely to be heavily managed by the big tech oligarchy. More immediately, however, once the full effects of lockdown policies begin to exert themselves as perceptible burdens to the public, it will be in the electoral interests of some politicians to challenge lockdowns. Thus, the current pro-lockdown hegemony that we are seeing amongst the political class could evaporate. In fact, anti-lockdowners don’t even need to be successfully voted in – they just need to be a credible electoral threat.
Interestingly, we are already starting to see some cracks emerge. On the 11th of this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – until now one of the most strident proponents of COVID restrictions – tweeted what, for him, is an extraordinary statement:
We simply cannot stay closed until the vaccine hits critical mass. The cost is too high. We will have nothing left to open. We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely.
Needless to say, of course, this would be conveniently well timed to assist in lending the incoming Biden administration a political and economic boost. Indeed, prior to the election, we highlighted the utility of COVID restrictions in unseating the Trump administration, and suspected that they may be magically lifted should Biden win. But we are seeing some change in the narrative from other quarters also. Neil Ferguson has suggested that London and North West England could be “on their way” to herd immunity which could help life to get back to normal by the autumn. Although not an elected official himself, as a court intellectual his opinions either help to drive government policy or – more likely – lend a “scientific” veneer to what the government wants to do. Could it be, therefore, that elected officials are anticipating the pressure they will experience when they finally have to subject themselves to at least some democratic oversight?
Conclusion: Take the Long View – but Things will Speed Up!
We all know how incredibly frustrating it is to be trapped in an unbearably drawn out situation which we wish would just end. Brexit was a case in point. Victory always seemed so near and yet was always at risk of being snatched away during what seemed like an eternal impasse.
In retrospect, however, we can see that these protracted battles are, thus far, producing favourable, long term results which would have been denied to us by quicker wins. Four years of Remainer obfuscation unveiled the true nature of the rotten establishment that rules this country, and laid bare the contempt it holds for those whom it is supposed to serve. This would not have been true if we had had an immediate departure the EU following the referendum. Thus, while, as we mentioned earlier, we have in fact achieved a much harder break from the bloc than would otherwise have been the case, it is important to remember that success is not necessarily measured in conventional terms. Power itself is the problem that inhibits freedom, not who happens to hold it. What matters for us, therefore, is not whether we win elections, pass favourable legislation, or manage to keep our Twitter accounts. In fact, all of this territory should rightly be designated as that which we oppose, not what we want to take over. Rather, our success is determined by how much the facades of legitimacy that cloak this power are torn down, awakening people to the real nature of those who rule them. There is a chance then that people will finally be willing to question the size and structure of the state itself. For libertarians, the ideal, eventual outcome of this process would be a movement towards smaller, weaker, decentralised and localised political entities.
In addition to Brexit, the extent of such awakening will be the correct measure of how much a liberating force Donald Trump has been for America. What matters is not what he achieved in office in terms of legislative success. It is how much his challenge to establishment power – and the concomitant effort to demonise him, to silence him, to remove him and to eradicate every trace of him from public life – has revealed about that power to the millions of Americans to whom the forty-fifth President gave a voice. Last week’s sudden banning of Trump by Twitter just days before he leaves office (and under the weak pretext of preventing violence), as well as the scrambling to remove him via impeachment, is only likely to make this worse. Indeed, while silencing Trump has been a cherished desire of his opponents for quite some time, the precise moment of execution seemed to be a knee-jerk reaction to try and smash Trump’s post-presidential popularity, not a carefully considered step in a long term strategy. This indicates just how tentatively the establishment believes it is keeping control.
Similarly, therefore, while we endure this seemingly endless COVID nightmare, we must fight to ensure that all of the propaganda, all of the falsehoods, and all of the insanity similarly erode the reputation of the state in just the same way as Brexit and Trump have done. By definition, power always comes at the expense of some people for the benefit of others, but it can only be sustained by the illusion that it benefits everyone. Thus, the more the state has to lie, to cheat, and to silence, then the more it realises that people are getting close to the truth. As conservative commentator Steve Turley has said “sometimes when an animal is dying is when it is most vicious”.
None of this is room for complacency, however. However long COVID-19 and the lockdowns last, the longer war that will determine how we will transition out of the current, failing order is set to continue. The danger is not necessarily that the establishment is going to win – it is how far they are prepared to go in trying. In particular, the more the avenues of objective dialogue are suppressed, and the more that official forums of decision making are believed to be biased, the less likely it is that a peaceful resolution will be sought. Moreover, while we are supposed to be taking something of a long view, the pace of events tends to accelerate if the powerful believe that they are facing a crisis situation. 2020 alone was a year in which decades seemed to elapse in mere months; 2021 is shaping up to be the same.
However, to end on an optimistic note, let us turn Turley’s point on its head: sometimes when an animal is at its most vicious it is because it is dying. Having now passed its 100th birthday, socialism, in all of its guises, has lived for too long, but it does not wish to accept its fate. The sooner it does then the more likely it is that a peaceful and liberating transition to a new polity will be achieved.