Matthew Crawford, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, has written another brilliant essay for UnHerd, this one about the internal contradictions in the liberal project that were thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic. Crawford, more than any other intellectual, has really got to grips with why our highly educated, apparently rational, left-of-centre elites are so vulnerable to being captured by quasi-religious, secular cults, whether it’s the woke mind virus, climate alarmism or Covidian ‘science’. Here is the opening section:
Throughout history, there have been crises that could be resolved only by suspending the normal rule of law and constitutional principles. A “state of exception” is declared until the emergency passes – it could be a foreign invasion, an earthquake or a plague. During this period, the legislative function is typically relocated from a parliamentary body to the executive, suspending the basic charter of government, and in particular the separation of powers.
The Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben points out that, in fact, the “state of exception” has almost become the rule rather than the exception in the Western liberal democracies over the last century. The language of war is invoked to pursue ordinary domestic politics. Over the past 60 years in the United States, we have had the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on Covid, the war on disinformation, and the war on domestic extremism.
A variation on this theme is the utility of moral panics – spiritual warfare – for pursuing top-down projects of social transformation, typically by administrative fiat. The principle of equality under the law, which would seem to be indispensable to a liberal society, must make way for a system of privileges for protected classes, corresponding to a moral typology of citizens along the axis of victim and oppressor. Victim dramas serve as a permanent moral emergency, justifying an ever-deeper penetration of society by bureaucratic authority in both the public and private sectors.
Once this pattern of government by emergency snaps into focus, one experiences a Gestalt shift. The self-image of the liberal West – as based on the rule of law and representative government – is in need of revision. Our society’s response to Covid brought this anachronism to mass awareness.
The pandemic brought liberalism’s deeper contradictions into plain view. On the one hand, it accelerated what had previously been a slow-motion desertion of liberal principles of government. On the other hand, Covid culture has brought to the surface the usually subterranean core of the liberal project, which is not merely political but anthropological: to remake man. That project can come to fruition, it seems, only with a highly illiberal form of government, paradoxically enough. If we can understand this, it might explain why our embrace of illiberal politics has met with so little resistance. It seems the anthropological project is a more powerful commitment for us than allegiance to the forms and procedures of liberal government.
Worth reading in full.