The Pandemic of Authoritarianism

by Theodore Dalrymple (May 2020)


Policeman Arresting the Spirit, Yiannis Tsaroychis, 1964




One of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been to call forth in the media of mass communication industrial quantities of what one might call the higher cliché. (A little-remarked on advantage of the epidemic was that, when you telephoned people, you could be more or less sure that they would be in.) No doubt because of social distancing and confinement, and for lack of anything else to write about, every scribbler soon turned philosopher, philosophy being the last resort of the hack with a deadline and nothing to say. When nothing happens, there are always abstractions to fall back on.


Abstractions and the future: what will the effect of the pandemic be on the world economy, human history, etc.? Will it have changed our psychology for ever, whether for better or worse? Will it have increased our belief in a deity, or will it have been the icing on the cake of atheism? What writer can resist the lure of the unanswerable, the opportunity to write what cannot be proved wrong until no one remembers what he has written or cares any longer?


Despite the fact that no one foresaw the pandemic or its effects, people still had some faith in the art or science (or whatever it is) of prognostication. There have, of course, been a considerable number of works of science fiction foreseeing the emergence of a deadly bacterium or virus that threatened Mankind with extinction, but Covid-19 never remotely threatened to do so, and in any case a vague imagined futurity  is of as much use as a prediction as that at some time in the future the stock market will go up or down. For a prediction to be any use, it has to be a good deal more specific as to timing, otherwise it serves only to increase anxiety. From the point of view of utility, one might as well examine chicken entrails.


But speculations as to the future are like metaphysics, we are so constituted as conscious beings that we cannot do without them. And perhaps we should divide prognostications into lessons and effects, the two being related but not identical. There can be lessons without effects and effects without lessons. It has to be remembered also that there is no historical experience from which the wrong conclusions cannot be drawn.


Did the epidemic reveal anything about our condition or situation that we did not know before or could not have known if we had thought about it? It is so obvious that it amounts to a cliché that not only life itself, but the economy as we have constructed, hangs by a thread: and yet the speed with which so much unravelled came as a surprise. Untune that string, said Shakespeare in a different context (he was speaking of social hierarchy, whereas we are talking of supply chains and economic interdependence), and hark what discord follows! Yet, if we had stopped to think of it, we might have realised how unwise it was, strategically, to outsource the production of almost everything to distant and not necessarily benevolently-disposed foreign powers.


The problem with human life, of course, is that we are perpetually starting out from where we are rather from where we ought to have been if we had been wiser than we actually were. We are constantly having to do the best we can in the circumstances, though we usually make a mess of it: and thus the whole infernalbut interestingcycle starts up again.


As for lessons, they are no sooner learned than (usually) forgottenunless they be the wrong ones, which are usually the most enduring. Another problem with lessons is that no one can agree what the correct ones actually were or are. What were and are the lessons, for example, of the First World War? That multinational empires are rotten, that nation states are invariably expansionist, that he who wants peace must prepare for war, that only a thoroughgoing pacifism can preserve the world from cataclysm? History does not teach lessons as if it were an old-fashioned schoolmistress in a primary school who brooks no contradiction from her pupils.


This lesson notwithstanding, as soon as normal service is restored in the form of an endless supply and huge choice of material goods, we revert to our former materialism. We were not insincere in our former belief that consumption of material goods is not all-important or necessary to human happiness, any more than the person who diets is insincere in his desire to lose weight but puts weight on again as soon as he stops the diet. It is simply that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. The epidemic might have taught something, I suppose, but just because something has been taught does not mean that it has been learned.


As for the collective or political lessons of the epidemic, I fear them more than rejoice in them. They seem to me likely to reinforce a tendency to authoritarianism, and to embolden bureaucrats with totalitarian leanings. One of the surprising things (or perhaps I should say the things that surprised me) was how meekly the population accepted regulations so drastic that they might have made Stalin envious, all on the say-so of technocrats whose opinions were not completely unopposed by those of other technocrats. There was, as far as I can tell, no popular demand for the evidence that supposedly justified the severe limitations on freedom that were imposed on the population. I suppose an encouraging interpretation of this readiness of the population to do as it was told is that it demonstrated that, all the froth and foam of opposition to political leaders notwithstanding, fundamentally the authorities were trusted by the population to do the right thing. Much as we lament, therefore, the intellectual and moral level of our political class, there are limits to how much we despise it. In other words, we believe that our institutions still work even when guided or controlled by nullities.


A less optimistic interpretation, as usual, is possible. Our population is now so used to being administered, supposedly for its own good,  under a regime of bread and circuses, that it is no longer capable of independent thought or action. We have become what Tocqueville thought the Americans would become under their democratic regime, namely a herd of docile animals. Only at the marginsfor example, the drug-dealers of banlieues of Pariswould the refractory actually rebel against the regulations, and that not for intellectual reasons or in the name of freedom, but because they wanted to carry on their business as usual. (I should perhaps mention here that I number myself among the sheep.)


I first sensed this development many years ago this when a traffic policeman asked to see my licence. ‘Well, Theodore . . . ’ he started, calling me by my first name when a few years before he would have called me ‘Sir.’ This change was significant. I had gone from being his superior, as a member of the public in whose name he exercised his authority, to being a kind of minor, whom it was his transcendent right to call to order. He was now the boss, and I was now the underling.


The Covid-19 epidemic has come as a great boon to the British police. Increasingly criticised for their concentration on pseudo-crimes such as hate speech at the expense of neglecting real crimes such as assault and burglary, to say nothing of organised sexual abuse of young girls by gangs of men of Pakistani origin, they could now bully the population to their heart’s content and imagine that in doing so they were performing a valuable public service, preserving the law and public health at the same time. Thus they transformed their previous moral and physical cowardice into a virtue.


no, the dutyto interfere in our lives to make sure that we stay healthy. And authority once taken rarely retreats of its own accord.  



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