by Guy de la Bédoyère
All states progress towards totalitarianism. This does not mean that they will get there, or even get very far along the way, though some do. But the direction of travel is always towards totalitarianism. The only possible way of preventing this is constant vigilance.
The totalitarian state is defined by an intolerance of diversity, whether in thought or behaviour. The use of propaganda is an essential ingredient in establishing not only all forms of intolerance of diversity but encouraging widespread support for them. The propaganda is integral to the state’s ideology, itself built around usually the depiction of a utopian future, however implausible. The end justifies the means. Intolerance is enshrined in the ideology, enforced through the annihilation of political opposition, control of the media, and control of the economy. The unifying of society against a common enemy is often another vital ingredient.
By definition the totalitarian state never achieves its goals other than in lies and dissimulation. Therefore dissent to some degree is inevitable. As failure mounts, so does dissent. As the promised land retreats, so the state moves to the next stage which is to enforce compliance, provoked by claiming that the dissenters are responsible for compromising the state’s success. Intolerance of diversity has now progressed to oppression.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the creation of Britain’s Covid Reich was that even in the middle of the government’s witless, confused and ambivalent approach to the crisis it was able to rustle up overnight many of the key ingredients of totalitarianism. The ideology and the slogans, and the continual repetition of the message with the supine assistance of broadcast media all fell into place with frightening speed. The speed with which the Great British Public acquiesced was even more alarming.
It’s not hard to find comparisons for the totalitarian’s mandate for how our country has been transformed in recent weeks. Here’s something Hitler came up with in 1923–4:
The goal and the way have to be determined by the care for the preservation of our people’s health in body and soul. The right of personal freedom steps back in the face of duty of the preservation of the race.Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, p.348 (New York: Reinel and Hitchcock, 1940).
Of course it’s quite easy to see that taken like that the argument seems not unreasonable. That is part of the beguiling nature of totalitarianism. It is most likely to burst into a life in a state beleaguered by an existential threat, with terror permeating society and exacerbated by the state’s exploitation of fear to assert control. That was why totalitarianism took off in Germany in the 1930s in the aftermath of the devastating effects of the Great War and the Depression. Italy went down the same route. Technically a victor, Italy had also suffered extreme economic hardship and social disruption and moved even more quickly into totalitarianism. The Soviet Union, despite its diametrically opposed ideology, developed its own form of totalitarianism for some of the same reasons. Totalitarianism was fraudulently presented as the solution to jeopardy, and terror used lavishly to focus popular fear on the enemies of the state to divert the people’s attention from their true enemy, the state itself. It’s precisely how North Korea operates today.
Of course totalitarianism does not come just from the state. The state is also the manifestation of a nation’s collective consciousness. Incipient totalitarianism is a perpetual feature of human society. Religion has always veered towards totalitarianism in its intolerance of other cults, and its use of authority and enforced compliance to survive. Today the religious cult of environmentalism has taken on the same mantle. Regardless of the practical methods available to us to deal with environmental issues, it has been fascinating to see how environmentalists have used the fear of ecological Armageddon to try and terrify the population into acquiescing to their beliefs. Intolerance of diversity of opinion pervades every aspect of environmentalism and is constantly buoyed along with threats of coercion.
It is a short jump to realizing how delighted environmentalists would be if we were all confined to our homes and prevented from travelling. Indeed, David Attenborough has already expressed his wish that aspects of the lockdown become permanent, like working from home.1https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/david-attenborough-earth-day-2020-coronavirus-climate-change-travel-environment-wfh-a9479066.html
One could even go so far as to suggest that some of the more vocal proponents of enforcing extreme environmentalism have succeeded in softening up society to the idea of totalitarianism.
It’s no great surprise that the young are the most willing supporters of Britain’s Covid Reich. We have already seen through countless recent examples at university how intolerant of diversity the young can be. They include not only some of the most fervent environmentalists but also those who resort instantly to suppression, censorship and even veer towards violence to refute any opinions that vary from their own. Ironically, as we now know all too well, it is the young whose risk from the virus is insignificant to the point of irrelevance when set against the panopticon of risk we face merely by living on this planet. Yet the message of fear seems to have had a more insidious effect on them than any other group. They are some of totalitarianism’s most useful idiots with their easier acceptance of monochrome posturing.
Britain’s overnight Covid Reich has many of the aspects of a true totalitarian state. Built on fear and state protection, it has some way to go yet but the signs of where it could proceed are already there. Ironically, one of its greatest weaknesses is that the government has not sold, and cannot sell, the lockdown on a promise of utopia. The only prospect if it continues is the very economic devastation that causes the rise of totalitarianism. If that becomes a hideous and sustained reality, then it will be a case of “you ain’t seen nothing yet”.
The gradual disintegration of the lockdown, with the police complaining it is becoming unenforceable, is something to welcome. It represents the decline of the state’s power and the refutation of totalitarianism. At this point the true totalitarian state turns on its people, blaming its followers for disloyalty to the ideology and betraying the sacred mission, and imposes further mechanisms for enforcement. We all know where that leads. Most totalitarians are fools because they become entrapped in a futile effort to enforce their intolerance of diversity while at the same time berating the people for betraying the nation. We have already seen the government and some police starting down that route, the latter gleefully employing denunciation of the non-compliers and encouraging informants.
And therein lies something of a glimmer of hope. It’s just possible that for once Boris Johnson is being as clever and as wily as both his supporters and opponents suspect he can be. If he continues down the line of enforcing the lockdown, as a true totalitarian would do and willing aided by his agents, he will provoke ever more subversion and resistance leading inevitably to his government’s downfall as its authority is eroded away.
Boris Johnson has very probably realized that. By relaxing the lockdown in an ambiguous and ambivalent way he can be seen to be presenting that easing as being in his gift, rather than it being simply taken from him. The other benefits to Boris Johnson are several. He will avoid the inevitable fate of a totalitarian leader. Yes, he’s left people and organizations confused and bewildered, not least by the unexpected need to start making a certain number of decisions for themselves, but that is probably deliberate.
He will leave petty devolved gauleiters like Nicola Sturgeon completely wrong-footed and resorting to their own brands of parochial totalitarianism in an attempt to shore up their authority in their fiefdoms. Indeed, Sturgeon has been left frothing at the mouth in frustration. If she follows in his footsteps she is an irrelevance. She is therefore left only with the choice of being more relaxed or carrying on whipping up fear to keep the lockdown in place. For the rest of us, the very vagueness of Johnson’s message will pluck us out of the hermetically sealed totalitarian world in which our every waking moment is cared for, now even paid for, by the state.
I have no idea if any of that is true. Perhaps Johnson has simply lost the plot as power begins to run like sand through his hands. He still paid lip service to Neil Ferguson’s dubious and discredited prediction of half a million victims if the lockdown hadn’t followed. But perhaps that was just a clever ploy to convince some that he was still ‘on message’ even as he surreptitiously pulled the rug away beneath it.
We really are at a fork in the road. In one direction lies the complete end of everything we have ever held dear and a life literally not worth living, a mere spectral existence in a paralyzed and terrified surveillance state of agoraphobics queuing up like mendicant friars for government handouts. In the other lies some sort of chance to learn to live with the virus crisis and use self-determination to overcome it within the context of all the other challenges we face. For Boris Johnson the prospect is simple. He either becomes an undisguised totalitarian and goes the way of all such leaders, or he uses his consummate political skills to worm his and our way out of this mess while leaving his critics floundering in his wake.
I know which one I’m hoping for.