by David McGrogan
The lockdowns of 2020-2021 are that rarest of things: a phenomenon that is genuinely sui generis. There is nothing new under the sun, the author of Ecclesiastes tells us. Well, it turns out he was wrong – take a bow, Neil Ferguson. In the last 12 months we’ve actually managed to do something that human beings have never been mad enough to try before.
But the sum of human knowledge is vast, and we can still draw from it to aid our understanding – of where ‘lockdownism’ came from, what perpetuates it, where it will end up, and what we can do about it. Here is the beginning of a library of resources for fellow sceptics, so as to arm ourselves with some of that knowledge in our ongoing efforts to figure out what the hell has happened. Read them and, well, weep:
The Fear of Freedom by Erich Fromm, 1941.
Fromm’s masterpiece set out to analyse the psychological roots of Nazism, but its insights are far deeper than that. The core of his argument – that freedom is, for many people, an unwanted burden, fraught with risk, and that this imbues them with the desire to conform to the strictures of authority figures of various kinds – has never seemed more apt than in 2020-21.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro, 1974.
A 1,200-page biography of a mid-20th century Park Commissioner of New York might seem an obscure recommendation to anybody, let alone sceptics of lockdown. But The Power Broker won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason: it is a case study in how power corrupts, transforming even the most idealistic of reformers into grasping egotists, addicted to control. Robert Moses, its subject, began with pure motives. He ended in corruption, megalomania, and greed. The story of how political power, once gained, quickly becomes an end in itself is an apt one indeed for our times.
The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, 2012.
This book describes in modern societies a tendency for people to fixate on narrow, statistically-measurable phenomena and to miss the bigger picture (and to become enraged when this is pointed out), and locates this in the very structure of the human brain. A truly indispensable work in understanding the path on which we are walking and what gives us our impetus in doing so.
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott, 1998, and Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott, 2017.
These two books are a potted history of the development of the state, rooting its origins in the desire to make societies ‘legible’ through the use of statistics, measurement, and top-down managerialism, and following that story through to its apparent apex in the mad utopian dreams of 20th century modernism. Anybody reading these books cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that what has happened in 2020-21 is just another stage in that process: societies made ever more ‘legible’ or visible to their rulers through endless testing, measuring and monitoring, and made ever more miserable as a result.
Oakeshott’s work is dense, irascible and eccentric, but no political philosopher of the 20th century more accurately diagnosed the problem that lead to lockdownism: a trend to see the state as a grand enterprise for the realisation of human well-being, rather than just a neutral umpire protecting the liberty of citizens to live as they see fit. The idea of the government forcing people to stay at home and preventing them from working so as to ‘control’ a virus is one that Oakeshott would doubtless easily have predicted – it is simply a natural consequence of the idea, which has grown over the course of the last century, that the state is supposed to run our lives for our own good.
The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter, 1988.
Tainter’s thesis is relatively straightforward: as societies grow and develop, they become increasingly complex, with new laws and regulations and public services being endlessly created. These increasing layers of complexity cannot be removed once they’ve become entrenched – because we get used to them, and they come to appear essential. This results in a never-ending conglomeration of purportedly necessary government schemes, none of which is ever revoked; in the end, all this stuff becomes a drain, gobbling up resources, until the society is denuded of productivity and becomes brittle, ready to be pushed over as soon as a genuine crisis hits. Some, including Rishi Sunak, entertain the naïve belief that there will be a ‘back to normal’ moment for our economy. Tainter would tell them that the opposite is much more likely: furlough and other forms of government support for businesses, vaccine passports, mass-testing, Covid regulations and ‘guidance’, massive quantitative easing/money printing, quarantine and the like will all become part of the furniture, something we ‘have to do’ indefinitely, draining productivity and constantly increasing public debt, until a real emergency comes along and it all comes falling down like the biggest house of cards in history.
Readers may wish to email us their own suggestions and we will add them below: let us create a communal bibliography for our mutual edification and commiseration.
Dr David McGrogan is Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay, 1841
Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation by Edward Chancellor, 1999
The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, 1969
Scared to Death: From BSE to Coronavirus by Christopher Booker and Richard North, 2020
Live not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher, 2020
A Delusion of Satan: The full story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill, 1995
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz, 1953
How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century by Frank Furedi, 2018
The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing by Dr. Joost A. M. Meerloo, 1956
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1973
Where Are We Now: The Epidemic as Politics by Giorgio Agamben, 2021
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer, 1951
The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Ryszard Legutko, 2018
Notes From the Bunderground: Culture in the Time of COVID-19 by Fred Attenborough, 2020
Frustrations of a Sceptic by Jonny Peppiatt, 2021
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault, 1975
Panopticon: The Inspection House by Jeremy Bentham, 1791