The Daily Sceptic is dedicated to expressing scepticism about three contemporary cults: the cult of Covid-19, the cult of Climate Crisis and the cult of Wokery. I have written a few essays trying to offer suggestions about how to think of these cults and perhaps to sketch a grand unified theory of scepticism about them. I have described them as aspects of ‘nice totalitarianism’. I have suggested that they derive from a belief system which could be called ‘narcissistic gnosticism’. But let me try again, perhaps in blunter and simpler manner.
We are, I think, in a world of TOXIC MONOPOLIES.
I hope the irony in using ‘toxic’ is evident. We often hear much about ‘toxic masculinity’: but, as I hope to show, ‘toxic masculinity’ is one of the old (and not actually very toxic) monopolies; whereas the specifically toxic monopolies I want to talk about here are new.
Let me begin by telling a story about the recent history of the world. This history comes, as all good histories do, in three stages.
Stage 1 is the era of the existence of the old monopolies. This is the ancien régime, the world which runs from, say, Coriolanus to Oliver Cromwell, the world of military rulers, the world in which the only way to achieve political stability was to engage in successful wars, and the only way to achieve economic growth was to make successful conquests. At least in England, and in the centuries closer to Cromwell, the significant monopolies were three: the monopoly of the aristocracy, the monopoly of the church, and the monopoly of males, all three monopolies, happily, crowned by the king – or occasionally by a queen.
Stage 2 is the era of the abolition of these monopolies. In 1870 J.R. Seeley, in what is still an astonishing essay, suggested that the best way to understand the revolution of his time was to explain it in term of the abolition of monopolies. And he specified the monopolies which had been abolished, or were in the course of being abolished, of which the three most significant were the monopolies of aristocracy, church and men. He asked what had brought about such a result and his answer was the vague and potent one, ‘public opinion’. The abolition of each monopoly established a condition of the future order. Aristocracy had fallen, so the modern order would be democratic. The church had fallen, so the modern order would be secular. The men had fallen – or, what was the same thing, the women had been emancipated – and so the future order would be egalitarian.
This order is the one we tend to take for granted. We call it ‘liberal’: and what we mean is that we are free, and that out freedom is constrained by the rule of law, for the particular purpose of enabling everyone to be free while only minimally interfering with the freedom of others. But the order we take for granted has two sides. It is not only ‘liberal’ or ‘liberalised’. That was the particular nineteenth century contribution to modernity. It is also ‘socialised’: the particular twentieth century contribution to modernity. By ‘socialised’ I do not mean ‘socialist’: what I mean is that the order is constrained not only for the sake of freedom, as it is on the liberal side, but for the sake of security. The word ‘security’ covers many of the features we associate with the modern state: social insurance, unemployment benefit, welfare provision, state education, the national health service.
For a century or more, our political order has been dominated by the divide which was first seen clearly in politics in the 1880s when a debate arose about the respective merits of ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’. This divide was muddied somewhat as long as politics was dominated by Conservatives and Liberals, but once it was dominated by Conservatives and Labour, it became the most obvious point of difference – and it still is around, if we are to judge by the most recent budget of Truss’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng. This explains something which is sometimes not seen clearly, which is that conservatism, though originally inclined to traditional order and some measure of ‘collectivism’, naturally turned on its axis when it was opposed by a Labour party espousing a much more theorised and articulated form of ‘collectivism’. This explains why modern conservatism has often been not much more than liberalism in tweeds. The fact that the major obvious political difference is still ‘individualism’ versus ‘collectivism’ may be seen also in the reaction of the Guardian to Kwarteng’s budget. However, something else happened.
Stage 3 is the era of the emergence of new monopolies. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the ancien régime, this is the era which has been rising for 30 or so years, if not 60 – if we date everything from Larkin’s 1963 – but which has come into cold clarity in our own time, especially in the strange double revolutionary years of 2016 and 2020. The first of these years, 2016, was the year of ‘Brexit and Trump’: which suggested that politics was possibly turning on its axis, away from ‘individualism’ versus ‘collectivism’ to something like ‘nowheres’ versus ‘somewheres’, ‘uppers’ versus ‘downers’, ‘globalists’ versus ‘populists’. ‘Brexit and Trump’ was above all, a negative result for the dominant ruling class, and for the court culture of the higher-educated. The second of these years, 2020, was the year of ‘COVID-19’, and was a positive result for the same dominant ruling class.
At this point in the argument I have to bring in Adam Smith. A recent book by Paul Sagar, Adam Smith Reconsidered, has brought to our attention an astonishing insight Smith made in the pages of The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Smith famously commented that people who engage in the same trade “seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick”. Sagar has polished up this insight and called it “the conspiracy of the merchants”. The idea is that Adam Smith approved of markets; however he did not approve of merchants. Merchants were necessary for the working of markets. They were the ingenious men who worked out that political stability did not require war and economic growth did not require conquest. But merchants not only knew how to manage markets: they knew how to influence markets in their own interest. Their knowledge and their wealth meant that they could, in combination or separately, influence politicians in such a way that, after a few centuries, the entire political-economic-social system would eventually be completely distorted in their favour. In a word, Adam Smith anticipated that the merchants would destroy the pure working of the markets by creating and maintaining monopolies: and that this had consequences – seen even more clearly by Edmund Burke a bit later on – which would run right down to the foundations of church and state. It was one element in the abolition of the old monopolies, though not one Seeley recognised.
Smith’s insight explains much that happened since the middle of the nineteenth century: the rise of the great combinations, companies and corporations, from those of Rockefeller, Edison, Hearst and Ford right through to those of Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Musk, Dorsey and Zuckerberg. It also explains something which, again, might not have been so obvious to the more innocent among us – and I include myself – until 2020, when it was made as clear as it has ever been made clear in the history of the world that state, media, universities, corporations, professions were, seemingly, more or less united in perpetuating a vastly distorted sense of reality.
The distorted sense of reality can be demonstrated very simply in relation to COVID-19. I saw a piece in the Spectator a few days ago which had the title ‘Vaccines disguised the errors of our lockdown policy’. But there is no reason why the title could not have been reversed: ‘Lockdown disguised the errors of our vaccine policy’. Both are true. Something came, a virus, a, and our response to it was so deranged and distorted and monotonous and managed that this response of lockdown, B, appeared to confirm the possibility that what had happened was in fact as calamitous as the most extreme analysts had suggested, hence a was in fact A, and, in this situation, B could only be considered a interim measure, the desperation and destructiveness of which could only be justified if we found a miracle cure, C, called a ‘vaccine’. For those who believed in this circular nonsense, it was as simple as ABC.
But what is significant about this is that it was undeniably accompanied by toxic monopoly. This toxic monopoly is so pervasive that even now, after two and a half years, academic papers are being retracted, responsible commentators are suffering exile, calumny or demonetisation, and governments and corporations and media are still maintaining that A was as bad as originally thought, that B was justified, and that C has succeeded. The costs of B and certainly C are still taboo subjects, especially the second. No one, except in the marginal online press, questions the vaccines – even while there is every evidence that something extremely bad has happened.
As the Daily Sceptic continually implies, the COVID-19 policy forms a strange triad with Climate ideology and the political correctness of the Woke movements. They are all elements of the toxic monopoly of our time. By this I mean that they make claims to truth, or even ‘fact’, which seem to justify extreme forms of censorship and cancellation. The COVID-19 monopolists are very quick to blame their critics for ‘spreading misinformation and disinformation’ when they themselves have been caught very obviously doing exactly this at almost every point during the course of the pandemic. But this is also true of the Climate Crisis monopolists: since criticism of our current climate politics appears to be an extremely marginal phenomenon, carried out by a persistent fringe set of scientists and speculators. Wokery is different because, unlike the Covid and Climate ideologies, it is not about ‘facts’ – and cannot depend on an appeal to science – and this is in large part why it is hard to explain why exactly these three movements have come together.
But here is the explanation. Not only are they ideologically perfect examples of toxic monopoly: by which I mean that they offer new ways of establishing monopolies of opinion against a background of liberal and socialised assumptions. But they also share the strange property of being approved of by the state-media-corporate-university monopolistic culture itself. This is the oddity. Corporations have embraced the COVID, CLIMATE and WOKE doctrines: even though, on the face of it, this seems counter-intuitive. It would be counter-intuitive if markets worked the way ‘neo-liberals’ or the Chicago School economists think they do. But they do not. Markets work the way Adam Smith thought they did: they are bent out of shape by merchants – that is, by monopolists. And what we now have is a late system in which the mercantile influence has penetrated so far through the universities, the professions and the political system that the entire higher culture now forms the officer class of a vast post-liberal monopoly. And its ideology is built into out post-liberal monopolistic positions which constitute not only a continuation of the process by which the ancien régime monopolies are abolished – there is no love of church, aristocracy or men in this modern culture (and, in this, it runs parallel with the liberalism of the second stage) – but also an established of new monopolies (and in this it runs against the liberalism of the second stage).
In sum, at first the conspiracy of the merchants contributed to the abolition of the old monopolies, but, after a hiatus, it is now contributing to the establishment of new, toxic, monopolies. They are monopolies because they are meant to be beyond argument. They are also monopolies because they are being wielded by a newly technologised mass state-corporate elite against us. These are toxic because they are partial and involve a distorting of reality. I would go so far as to say that they all involve a fundamental belief that ‘nature is not nature’. On the one hand, ‘science’ can be twisted by the toxic monopolists to achieve the correct political effect. And now, on the other, ‘morals’ are also being twisted in the same way, since our moral nature is found to be as artificial and as malleable as nature itself.
Taking the knee is a triumph of toxic monopoly. So is extinction rebelliousness. So is victimhood. So is positive discrimination. So is trans ideology. So is hunting for institutional bias or unconscious racism. So is cancellation. So is wearing a mask. So is zero liability for manufacturers of vaccines. So is mandating of the same vaccines. So is any politics which concerns itself with ‘zero’ anything. So is suppression of the truth about all of this. Finally, so is censorship of anyone attempting to uncover the truth.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.