In the UK, there cannot be many people left now who in their heart of hearts think that the lockdown has been a proportionate and ideologically innocent attempt to contain an infection. To apply Karl Marx’s words to our own times, coronaviruses make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. And for us, these circumstances are the counter-revolution that is being waged against democracy with an ever-increasing intensity and bitterness.
Two years ago it had seemed that the struggle to foist the European Union back upon a population that had rejected it might have been this struggle’s climactic battle. Instead, the lockdown has since emerged as an even more momentous battleground.
The lockdown represents such a battleground because it involves two competing philosophical interpretations of what any individual essentially is. Does the individual possess the reason that is needed to be able to understand the danger from COVID-19 and to then consequently assume an active role in preventing infection? If they do, then they will act in a rational way without any prompting and a state-imposed lockdown will be superfluous. Alternatively, are human beings innately irrational, selfish and ignorant? If this is the case, then a lockdown will have to be imposed upon them by a more rational external source.
The UK’s elites and its managerial middle-class have clearly decided upon the latter interpretation and, for them, this interpretation is clearly an ideologically loaded and self-serving one. The “more rational external source” is naturally themselves, or the administrative state that is under their class control. And following the calamity of the 2019 election, when a botched attempt to claw back the EU had left various professional, cultural and academic elites perilously isolated from the society that they had otherwise appointed themselves to lead, COVID-19 has provided an unexpected opportunity. Indeed, for our needy administrative classes, the coronavirus has been a windfall and the result has been a naked middle-class power grab.
This power grab has occasioned an implicit return to that question over what the individual essentially is. For if the average person is unable to judge the risk of infection for themselves, and if they are unable to amend their behaviour to contain the infection, then what is it exactly that qualifies them to vote in the first place? The lockdown thus slyly displaces the individual within our democracy. An emergency such as COVID-19 reveals it to be a regrettable oversight that the average person had been ever enfranchised, since the very starting-point for this emergency is the tendency of beings as foolish and as empty-headed as ourselves to spread infection.
During the lockdown, the average individual has been nagged, manipulated, and bossed about as if they were a child. The lockdown was never put in front of the electorate and it has continued in the hope that scantily-controlled administrative power can flourish within an agreed democratic gap. We will all have to return home by the next election. But once we are home again, things will be no longer quite the same. We will have received a five-year lesson in our own lack of reason, which should humble us and deter us from ever voting for anything as disruptive as Brexit again. And voting has been in itself quietly revealed by the lockdown to be a power that we have not earned or that we do not have any obvious right to, as if it is inherited from some earlier time that is no longer comprehensible.
In being rendered controlled, manipulated and politically passive by the lockdown, the average individual in the UK has become more like a citizen of the EU than ever before. Of course, the analogy between Remain and the lockdown has its limits. One might protest that the EU had been wildly popular amongst young people whereas young people are today amongst the biggest victims of the lockdown. And one might also protest that the lockdown enjoys greatly more active sympathy from the UK’s voters than the EU had ever done. For example, the majority of people who had supported Remain had known little or virtually nothing about the EU and how it functions, whereas supporters of the lockdown are often tremendously educated about every detail of the government health advice.
On the first point, young people might hold quite different views on the EU and the lockdown, but their political passivity remains unchanged. No eloquent student leader had ever emerged as a national spokesperson for the supposed love of the EU amongst young people; the suffering of the young during the lockdown has similarly found no decided political expression. In my experience, young people have either adapted innovatively to the lockdown – by, for example, departing from the land of the living to Instagram or TikTok – or else they have taken to an underground existence, to raves and so on, as stealthily as tipplers in the days of Prohibition.
On the second point, opinion polls that have been conducted since the beginning of the lockdown appear to show that, if the lockdown could somehow stand in an election, it would win by a landslide. Last October, for instance, 45% of those polled by Ipsos-MORI had professed to favour an even more stringent lockdown than the one that had been imposed (presumably with a crueller treatment of the elderly, more barbaric funeral practices etc.). Of course, it could be that the polls are as unreliable and as flimsy as they have always been.
Some focus groups have teased out the information that people will never follow the lockdown’s rules as enthusiastically as they claim to support them. Moreover, recent research by Royal Society Open Science has discovered that, “the majority of people support most public health measures introduced, but… they also see significant side effects of these policies, and… they consider many of these side effects as unacceptable in a cost–benefit analysis.”
The problem with polling is that it typically provides a chance snapshot, without any of the deeper thought that can precede participating in an election. None of the respondents in these polls are ever operating with complete information. At the start of the lockdown, people had been told that it would just allow the NHS a window to develop capacity and to prepare for the winter; a year later, they were being assured that vaccinations would place a new and final time-limit upon the lockdown. If it had been admitted from the beginning that the lockdown would exist in some form or another indefinitely, and perhaps forever, with a £2.1 trillion national debt and with no plans as yet for how to repay it, then it is hard to see how such a spectacular mess could ever top the polls.
As with the economics of the EU, the lockdown is short-termism incarnate and it is devoid of any strategic planning over the longer term. The case for staying in the EU had largely come down to forestalling the immediate disruption of leaving it. Voters were otherwise meant to remain wilfully blind to the big picture of the bloc’s unprepossessing economic future.
The EU and the lockdown are together based on the fantasy that a finer, deeper source of rationality exists than the common sense of ordinary people, whether this common sense is expressed collectively, through the democratic will, or individually, through our own personal conduct during a pandemic. The administrative class that runs the EU is always stranded powerlessly as many of the nations within the bloc grow poorer and poorer and the bloc as a whole grows more culturally divided. And, with an equivalent powerlessness, the bureaucracy responsible for the lockdown is today presiding over ever more delirious rounds of nonsense.
If you have supported the lockdown up until now, I would invite you to contemplate what exactly you have gotten in return for your pains. It is apparently imperative to be vaccinated, but the vaccines are now apparently so useless that certain lockdown restrictions will have to remain in place indefinitely. Over two million workers are being paid by the state not to work whilst other areas of the economy are starved of labour. Workers who have been vaccinated can be asked to self-isolate, in order to “keep everybody safe,” even if this means that hospitals are left dangerously understaffed. The NHS is supposedly an object of national veneration but we have allowed its waiting lists to grow so long that there is soon likely to be an unedifying scramble for private healthcare. And whereas in 1997 New Labour could spend a lot of money on the NHS to bring down comparable waiting lists, today these lists will coincide with a depletion of the nation’s income.
So it looks increasingly that far from embodying suave expertise and resourcefulness, SAGE, the UK government’s scientific advisory group, couldn’t between them run a brothel. Indeed, far from insufficiently “following the advice” and “following the data,” the UK’s governments have acted as a lingering source of sanity. Had SAGE run the country during the pandemic, rather than simply offering advice, then they would have spent trillions of pounds destroying the economy and they would have reduced the NHS to an irreparable ruin.
If this is where the flight from a belief in the rationality of ordinary people has led us to, then maybe it is time to return home.