How Covid Revealed the Moral Bankruptcy of Liberal Democracy
- Why there can't be an amnesty
How Covid Revealed the Moral Bankruptcy of Liberal Democracy
- Why There Can’t be an Amnesty
Amnesties have been an essential part of the international world order for centuries. Could peace treaties between warring factions ever have held up without the respective blocs promising to ‘forget’ the hostilities brought against them? However, what happened during the pandemic was very different. There was no dispute between belligerent parties; rather there was one dominant entity: ‘the official narrative’ which effectively subsumed every other voice. And what we witnessed was the emergence of an authoritarian trend throughout Europe as the various Liberal governments attempted to establish unified totalitarian control.
In this, they were supported by enthusiastic Liberal elites, a corrupted social media that shadow-banned and black-listed dissident voices, and a sizeable measure of a heavily nudged and traumatised populace. Contrary to the assertion that there was some sort of knowledge deficit, in reality, the deficit was one of critical thinking as many chose to unquestioningly follow the narrative, however nonsensical and illogical it became. Others simply saw which way the gravy train was going and jumped on board. And anyone, however authoritative, who attempted to articulate a counter view was silenced and vilified. The damage inflicted on society by this experiment in social control far exceeds the harm caused by the virus. And, what is surely lingering in many people’s minds, is the knowledge that the threat hasn’t gone away. Because what it felt like is something between a failed coup and a dress rehearsal.
As we watched, all the institutions of Liberal Democracy were co-opted into this authoritarian project. There were brave individuals who spoke out, but across the board, hospitals, doctors, schools, universities, the entire mainstream media, political parties, entertainers, lawyers, the judiciary, and even the church fell into lock-step. It was a shocking spectacle. And, now that the veil has been pulled back and we have seen the moral bankruptcy of these institutions, I don’t see how it can be forgotten. The chilling reality we now face is that there is not a single institution in any Liberal Western Democracy that is willing or able to defend its citizens from authoritarian control.
To my mind, the pandemic had two distinct stages. First was the lockdown. This I think of as the preparatory, ‘messing with people’s heads’ stage. This was when we woke up to discover that our local area had been turned into a crime scene. Where I live, even the meagre outdoor gym on the promenade got swathed in the waspy tape. Presumably, the risk that some early-morning runner might dare a chin-up was too much. But there was nonsense everywhere. We also learned to follow arrows and walk clockwise around supermarkets – only shopping for essentials of course - and were helpfully monitored in the task in case we erred and tried to backtrack to grab a forgotten slab of cheese. Indeed a lot of life became monitored at that time. Who could have guessed at the buried talents of so many bullies and petty despots? This was the time when some of us sought out sanity in the likes of Peter Hitchens, Lockdown Sceptics, and Jonathan Sumption. It was also the time when you found out which of your friends had drunk the Kool-Aid.
The second stage was blatant coercion. This was when the nascent authoritarianism really got into its stride, using classic divide and rule tactics. The basic mantra was that if we wanted to get back to normal, we all had to do our bit. So, anyone who didn’t comply was holding up everyone else. It was as though the whole class was being put in detention because one of us refused to acknowledge that the teacher was a god. At first, it was a carrot and stick affair: get your vaccination and collect your voucher, money, burger, etc. Later it was just stick. If the vaccine roll-out had been handled differently, if the right to bodily autonomy had been respected, things might have been different. Perhaps, even the cancellation of our civil liberties during lock down could have been forgotten. But it wasn’t. Things got worse.
I’m not sure the general public realise the massive abuse of power to which they were subjected in that coercive programme of forced vaccination. The media certainly did nothing to alert them. On the contrary, any one mentioning the thorny legal principle of ‘informed consent’ was regarded as a bit of a cry-baby. Whatever issues there may have been with the vaccine’s efficacy, with its adverse side effects, or with the considerable profits derived from its manufacture, those matters are all irrelevant to the question of informed consent. And, in my view, it is regrettable that the fundamental legal principle of bodily integrity got mired in those other issues, important as they are. Because what has been obscured as a result is the fact that the state has crossed the most precious of boundaries. Quite simply, it has raided the resources of human thinghood and claimed them for its own. And there is no going back.
In the late 90s I studied Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London. It was then a prestigious new centre bringing together law and moral philosophy to examine questions of medical practice. As the vaccine rollout began, I dug out my old textbook to remind myself of the foundational significance of this legal principle, which appeared to have been suddenly erased. One third of this medical law textbook of roughly one thousand pages is concerned with a discussion of informed consent. It is impossible to convey in a few words the significance of this principle which underlies our existence as free, private, integral human beings. Suffice it to say that it is pivotal to all notions of autonomy and citizenship. It speaks to our plurality as identifiably distinct human begins with different values and aspirations. Not to mention its relevance for human dignity. Because without it what are we but a resource of the state?
I don’t see how the principle of bodily integrity can have survived this assault. And, if it hasn’t, then the future looks very dark indeed. And that is why any idea about an amnesty is misplaced. Because what we have witnessed, whether we recognise it or not, is an assault on the most fundamental aspect of human freedom. As governments all over the western world instructed their citizens that it was their duty to comply with the vaccination program. They then coerced and persecuted those who would not relinquish their right to bodily integrity, who, quite simply, refused to offer themselves up as state property.
As I recall, popular measures discussed by the mainstream media, many of which were actually deployed in some countries, included forcing the unvaccinated to wear identification, excluding them from using all transport systems, banning their entry to certain shops and restaurants, denying them access to healthcare, segregating children in class, or indeed forbidding unvaccinated children from attending school at all, and generally prohibiting the unvaccinated from being in the same vicinity as the vaccinated. It is hard to believe that just a year ago, in November 2021, Austria passed a law confining the unvaccinated to their homes. This draconian measure proved extremely popular with the vaccinated class, notwithstanding the fact that by this time it had been well-established that the Covid virus could be transmitted by both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. It is therefore difficult to see how the idea of a ‘Knowledge deficit’ addresses the discrimination meted out to the non-compliant. Which only got worse as vaccine mandates forced the unvaccinated out of work and into destitution. Whilst those protesting against the mandate, many of whom were vaccinated as in the case of the Canadian Truckers, were widely derided as racists, neo Nazis, fascists, white supremacists and anti-vaxxers, and were put down by excessive levels of police violence and novel financial penalties. Perhaps, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ahern, encapsulated the new reality most succinctly in her acknowledgment that there were now two classes of citizen.
‘Fascist’ has become the laziest and most slippery of political insults, commonly hurled at anyone holding a different worldview. ‘Commie’ on the other hand, sounds like an insult from a time long forgotten – almost like a joke. Perhaps, it lacks the same violent rasp. Maybe people have forgotten about the gulags. But the real difficulty in readying ourselves against totalitarian movements is that we see them only in terms of the past: our ear is to the ground for things already said. It is our lack of imagination that defeats us, as we seem unable to see the reality enveloping around us– to bridge the gap from where we are to what everything points towards.
The thinker most closely associated with the study of totalitarianism is, undoubtedly, Hannah Arendt. In ’The Origins of Totalitarianism’ published in 1951, she describes totalitarianism as a novel phenomenon, emerging in the 20th century: ‘the century of the mass’ as she calls it, and having its roots in modernity. Her need to understand this ‘horrible originality’ was deeply personal, having had to leave her native Germany in the early 30s due to intensifying antisemitism. However, Arendt was more interested in the human practices that applied and facilitated totalitarian thinking than in its ideological base, since she didn’t believe that there was any ideology unique to totalitarianism. And, indeed, was one of the first to draw parallels between the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. For Arendt, the elements capable of developing into totalitarianism emerge from modernity’s drive towards omnipotence and its hubristic belief that ‘anything is possible’, including changing human beings. And whilst those elements could be amalgamated in different ways: threaded onto any number of hateful or even therapeutic ideologies, what they have in common is a desire for total domination over human nature. In many ways the brutality of Nazism and Communism distracted from the essence of totalitarianism which, for Arendt, held a much deeper and more sinister ontological significance. It wasn’t the numbers killed that made them totalitarian, rather it was their intention to erase the plurality of human beings from society.
As Margaret Canovan points out in her study of Arendt’s thinking on totalitarianism, this concern with the destruction of human agency was at the very heart of Arendt’s analysis. It is also what makes her of continuing relevance today. In totalitarianism Arendt saw “a much more radical liquidation of freedom as a political and as a human reality than anything we have witnessed before.” Because she realised that the only way for modernity to achieve its goal of omnipotence was to turn human beings into a single, programmable expression of humanity, which meant that “Human spontaneity has to be destroyed and human beings reduced to predictable members of a herd so that they will not upset the logical system.” Essentially, human beings as individuals have to disappear.
Unsurprisingly, Arendt’s views have proved controversial. Some critics asserted that since Hitler had expressed his disdain for modernity, her findings could not be correct: totalitarianism had to be uniquely German. Others did not want to accept that the USSR was a totalitarian regime. And it wasn’t until Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ was smuggled out and published in 1973 that the tide turned. Her coverage of the Eichmann trial in the 60s which brought her ‘banality of evil’ comment into the public lexicon also upset many, and not just in the Jewish community. What has to be remembered, however, is that Arendt studied totalitarianism primarily for herself. She needed to understand it because she had lived through it. She had witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany and wanted to understand how it was that the world she’d been brought up in changed so rapidly. As she states in one of her last interviews, it wasn’t so much Hitler’s coming to power that shocked her as former friends and neighbours turning against her. That was the phenomenon Arendt struggled to comprehend and the reason why she realised that whatever we attribute to the root causes of totalitarianism, it is important to recognise that it is not some distant, exogenous force. Rather, its essential elements lie beneath the surface of own society.
Yes. I've studied Arendt and Nazism too (see my name, I also had a personal need to do so) but, back in those PhD days, I believed that totalitarianism was a twentieth century blip, something to do with the newness of modernity that provided a lesson which, once learnt, would never be forgotten. Now I understand - or rather, nearly three years on from the Covid Revelation, I'm still struggling to process the fact it's a latent tendency in our human nature. It turns out that liberal democracy is no protection - for many its core values could simply be abandoned or overturned on instruction. This was the case for many individuals and, in Britain at least, almost ALL institutions. So given, as you say, that was something between a failed coup and a dress rehearsal, where do we go from here? That's the main question for me now.
"And that is why any idea about an amnesty is misplaced. Because what we have witnessed, whether we recognise it or not, is an assault on the most fundamental aspect of human freedom. As governments all over the western world instructed their citizens that it was their duty to comply with the vaccination program. They then coerced and persecuted those who would not relinquish their right to bodily integrity, who, quite simply, refused to offer themselves up as state property."
Quite. No amnesty.