by James Alexander
In 1858 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote to a friend about un virus d’une espèce nouvelle et inconnue, “a virus of a new and unknown species”. He was not referring to anything biological, but to the French Revolution. And it should be obvious to all of us at the end of the year 2020 that the significant “virus of a new and unknown species” this year has not been the coronavirus but the political response to the coronavirus.
In trying to make sense of the extremity of what has happened, we have heard talk of a ‘Great Reset’: which is the name for the supposed conspiracy by which the global rich will use the current crisis to control and pacify the human population by taking property, regulating finance, monitoring us through the panopticon of modern technology, controlling our movement with health passports, continuing the flow of luxuries, signalling to us our subjugation by the use of masks, vaccinations and implants, and imposing on us a single technocratic world government.
There are several obvious things to be said about any conspiracy. The first is that conspiracy is an exaggeration, the equal and opposite exaggeration to cock-up. The first wants to believe that everything is a consequence of control. The second wants us to believe that everything is a consequence of chaos. But behind the apparent distinction between control and chaos we have a more important one, the distinction between competence and incompetence. To believe in a conspiracy we not only have to believe that everything is a consequence of control: we also have to believe that control is competent. A conspiracy theory is actually a belief in the competence of the conspirators. On the other side, a cock-up theory supposes that all controllers and conspirators are incompetent.
In an earlier piece, I suggested as an alternative, a third possibility, cockupspiracy. This is obviously a compromise theory: suggesting that we live in a world of partial competency in which rival partial competencies are continually at war. In this piece I use this as the launching point for further reflections on conspiracy.
There is something which has to be said immediately about conspiracy in relation to the current crisis. The current crisis is the twisting of an apparent crisis caused by the disease COVID-19 into a real crisis by the political response which I have called Polis-20. The crisis is a consequence of an unusually intense attempt to combine scientific and political imperatives, as mediated by an agitated press. It is difficult to know how to frame a causal explanation: whether to blame scientists or politicians or those who mediate scientific and political claims and hence sanction them and harden them into public opinion. But we can avoid ascribing exact blame by saying that policy has infected scientific claims just as scientific models have infected political claims. The word ‘infected’ is of course a metaphor, derived from viruses. It should be obvious why it comes to mind.
At every point it is possible to ascribe blame to conspiracy or cock-up, though I prefer cockupspiracy, the view that in any human activity there is no simple competence or incompetence but a thousand combinations of competence and incompetence. In this case, what I think we have seen, since politicians and scientists and the media have been so eager to form an alliance against the people, is that the incompetence of the handling of matters has at every point ratcheted up the despotic tendency of the policies initially supposed to have been legitimated by the competent handling of matters.
Though I suggest that it is wiser to allege cockupspiracy than either conspiracy or cock-up, I think that it is important to say the following. What has happened in 2020 all over the world, in terms of the imposition of a deliberately despotic policy of masks, distancing and lockdown, is so significant that even if it is not a conspiracy (and I am saying it is not) it is on such a scale that we are certainly not wrong to consider it as if it is a conspiracy. The scale of the imposition of controls by states over citizens is so unparalleled outside of conditions of war or revolution that finding of fault is an inevitability, ascription of blame a necessity, resentment a duty. This is because even if through thoughtlessness or local self-interest someone perpetuates the current policies they are guilty of perpetuating one of the most dangerous tendencies of policy I have ever seen in all my years of reading history.
Even if we do not believe in the conspiracy of the World Economic Forum or the Trilateral Commission, I think we should be as vigilant as if there is a conspiracy. One way of being vigilant is to pay some attention to history. Politicians and scientists rarely know much about the great traditions of politics in the West. And I think we can discern in that history some useful suggestions for making sense of our current situation. In particular, I think attention ought to be drawn to what I am going to call the Great Preset.
The Great Reset seeks a world government of extreme competence. If not a conspiracy, it certainly is the desire to have one.
The Great Preset is not an aspiration. It is the world we live in. It is not yet a world of world government. It is a world of states.
The Great Preset was the emergence of a civilisation committed to absolute sovereign states which firstly sought to subjugate the Churches to themselves and secondly subscribed to increasingly rational and systematic uses of the population to increase the wealth of the state. This second thing could not be done without persuading the population that it was worth doing. The way this was done was, thirdly, by offering the people a formal equality and a certain prosperity. By ‘a certain prosperity’ I mean to signal that the prosperity offered was not necessary an equal prosperity. The brilliance of Marx was to see very clearly that the French Revolution and the later English Reforms had offered the populations of France and English equality of a sort without equality of prosperity. The offered the people, in effect, a formal right to prosper, along with some consolations for not prospering. What they offered limitedly in the nineteenth century in the form of the Poor Law, for instance, they offered less limitedly in the twentieth century in the form of Old Age Pensions, Unemployment Benefit, Free Education and Free Healthcare.
Under the influence of Jordan Peterson and some others, much in our contemporary culture, especially in higher education, is blamed on ‘cultural Marxism’. This is polemically useful, no doubt, but is wide of the mark. We are still in search of a good vocabulary for describing the noisy and petulant parasites in but not of liberal culture: sometimes we call them ‘politically correct’, sometimes ‘woke’, and we associate them with ‘identity politics’, ‘intersectionality’ and ‘virtue-signalling’. They are not liberal, not classically liberal, though they benefit from the indulgence shown them by liberals, and their own concerns are an active assertion of the sort of things which liberals like to be concerned with in terms of their passivity: matters of oppression of sexual, racial, cultural, religious minorities by supposed majorities. This is not Marxism in any meaningful sense. Language should not be twisted that far. I think we use the word ‘Marxism’ because Marxists were the enemy of the West for a century, and because certain academics for either justified or unjustified reasons have found it useful to perpetuate a minority intellectual culture of Marxism in the universities. They hold a liberal culture to a sort of ransom by adding revolt to criticism. They are sometimes revolting in the pejorative sense. The recent ‘cultural Marxists’ are always revolting, but they are not Marxist.
I say this because what Marx perceived as a necessity – to complete the revolution – was what some other commentators perceived as a possibility. This possibility was that the state would be more despotic than any ruling order had ever been before. This possibility is what I am calling the Great Preset. And what happened in 2020 was that it was finally became a reality rather than a mere possibility. I shall offer a short characterisation of the Great Preset here. In characterising it I think four or five factors are particularly important.
The first factor is the imposition of public belief over private belief. Three hundred and fifty years ago Hobbes suggested that the sovereign – in effect, the government, and also, in effect, the state – should impose certain beliefs on us for the purposes of public protestation. Any other beliefs could be held, but only privately, that is, never disclosed. Orwell’s Thought Police was just the breaking down of the privacy barrier at the bone of the skull. Though it is likely that Hobbes expected most of us to be able to express ourselves privately to others, because, in those times, the private sphere was much more extensive than the rather limited public sphere. It was the rise of the press, Media Stage 1, that changed everything, since private opinions could achieve their own publicity, though even these opinions were issued by the members of certain elites. Later with the rise of modern technological devices we had the rise of what we could call Media Stage 2, when everyone was suddenly able to make some sort of publicity out of their life, using the Internet and various forums making use of the Internet such as Myspace, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok and so on. As everyone now says these are increasingly no longer ‘platforms’ but ‘publishers’, meaning that they are increasingly coming to censor ‘content’ which does not accord with the ideological beliefs of the political classes. As many now find, these publishers have become very strange permanent repositories of our opinions, those formerly private now public opinions: hence a sort of immortal panopticon, which not only can see everything but cannot forget.
The second factor is the establishment of equality as the principle of solidarity within a modern political order. Here we may turn to Tocqueville, whose famous book Democracy in America may be taken to be the great study of the Great Preset. Tocqueville observed that the arrival of equality as the basis of social order involved a threat to liberty. This was the emergence of a new thing in human experience, the ‘tyranny of the majority’. He thought that modern society might achieve a level of stability and prosperity that would blunt the willingness of anyone to incur the disapproval of the other members of society. He saw liberty in tension with comfort. This was a classic old distinction, famous in the line from Benjamin Franklin which many have quoted during the COVID-19 crisis: which is, more or less, ‘Anyone who sacrifices liberty for security, deserves neither’. Tocqueville feared that the modern egalitarian state might be so good at achieving security or comfort or prosperity for its people that liberty might be lost. He was careful to distinguish the new despotism implied by this from the old despotism of the emperors and khans. The new despotism was a consequence of trust in the state, and the absence of any other source of authority to challenge it. The success of the state in eliminating the Church, and in imposing its own state ideology (which we may now call ‘political correctness’), has been such that as the state has increased in effective power it has counterposed to itself a society which can offer no resistance to the state. The life of individuals in society, commented Tocqueville, is ‘more insecure, subordinate and precarious’ than ever before. Uniformity prevails, the state meddles with every institution, turning every institution into a perpetuator of state ideology – and this is, two hundred years after Tocqueville, why the police forces have become, as Orwell also saw, enforcers of state ideology in preference to dealing with antique things like crime and punishment. In all this, the state pursues its activities ‘with greater speed, force and freedom of action than ever before’. But this state is kind and caring: its despotism is one of inhibiting, repressing, dulling the population, through the imposition of rules and the maintenance of modern equivalents of bread and circuses. Tocqueville called this ‘peaceful enslavement’. And I think we should be able to agree that Polis-20 is the greatest peaceful enslavement ever seen in the history of the world.
The third factor, already signalled by Tocqueville, is the rise and fall of liberalism. Liberalism is now looking like a transition stage, and a transition stage which has only affected the West. Though it was necessary in the West for achieving modernity, modernity has been achieved elsewhere – in Eastern Europe, Turkey, China and Russia, for instance – without it. And it is in decline in the West. Liberalism was the suggestion that belief did not matter. It was an answer to Hobbes. If Hobbes had thought belief did matter, and should be publicly imposed by the state, Liberals from Locke to Mill and right through to John Rawls and Jordan Peterson, all said that belief did not matter: or, rather, it was not so much which particular belief was believed as that a variety of beliefs could be allowed to be believed and even publicly protested as long as they did not form the basis of our constitution. Our constitutions should be liberal – that is, distinguished from any belief held by anyone within that constitution. This would, the theory went, enable people with different beliefs to co-exist. As Tocqueville saw, there were always pull and push factors, so that while it might have seemed as if liberalism encouraged the preservation of diversity, there was a rival tendency for certain monopolies of belief to exploit the openness of the arena to subordinate that arena to itself. Not Christianity, since Christianity was the foundation of the establishment which Liberals sought to replace: but, interestingly, Islam (about which our political classes have almost nothing to say except ‘Capitulate!’) and varieties of Political Correctness.
The fourth is something I have seen increasingly discussed by cultural commentators but which has not yet – as far as I have seen – been related to the current political crisis of Polis-20. This is the fact, observed by Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy, Ferdinand Mount in Mind the Gap, and David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere, that both the aristocratic aspiration to have a liberally diverse and variegated society and the democratic aspiration to have an egalitarian if uniform society have been shunted aside by a third vision, whereby the population is divided in half, into the educated and the uneducated, the elite and the deplorables, those who have benefitted from the established constitutional order (let us call them ‘constitutionalists’) and those who are now appealing within that order to those figures who seem to offer something to those who are not benefitting from it – usually called ‘populists’. Goodhart calls them somewheres and anywheres. Americans sometimes call them conservatives and liberals, as we would have done in England in the nineteenth century – though not with this particular signification. The particular modern signification is to do with the fact that universities expanded after the Second World War almost everywhere, and the expansion of higher education, almost everywhere, now means that where formerly a small minority were educated at university, now around half of any population is educated at university. Not only has this been a crisis for the university, in considering its function and its status as an elite institution, but has been an opportunity, since the social status of the university has risen even while its intellectual status has fallen, now that the state has entered the university and now uses the university to perpetuate its own ruling class ideology of political correctness, despotism, material prosperity and care.
The relevance of this now is that half the population supports the ideology of the ruling class. In the last decade or two we have seen this ruling class challenged by fundamentalism, by financial crisis, and, in particular – what sent them over the edge in the English-speaking world – by Brexit and Trump. ‘Brexit and Trump’ is a shorthand for the political attempt to resist the educated class by the uneducated and therefore excluded and alienated and demoralised class. It may be hard to recall now just what unanimity there was amongst the educated in favour of ‘Remain’ as opposed to ‘Leave’. In America Hillary Clinton called the other half of the population ‘deplorables’. Trump succeeded in establishing a deplorable claim to the centre of power. This was a ‘country’ revolt against the ‘court’, though it seems as if, with Biden, the ‘court’ has restored itself. The most important political distinction in the West now is the distinction between constitutionalists and populists – those of the university and those not of it – those who subscribe to the received ideology of the political classes and those who don’t. Constitutionalist agitators like the BBC, the Guardian, American late night television hosts and the political scientists who study ‘populism’ (but are actually opposed to it) like Jan-Werner Müller, Cas Mudde and so on fear that populism might lead to fascism. But they do not recognise that if there is a possible fascism of the populists, there is also a possible fascism of the constitutionalists, a liberal facism, which Jonah Goldberg has described neatly in a book of that name.
Specifically, what I want to claim about this new class divide between constitutionalists and populists, that is, those who benefit from the current political order and those who do not, which is about half and half at the moment, is that the constitutionalists have seized the apparent crisis of COVID-19 as an opportunity to instigate the real crisis of Polis-20: seized, I say, because they have seen it as an opportunity to distract the populists from their war against the established order. It is an opportunity because the constitutionalists have been able to pose as the protectors, the carers, the shepherds of society, and especially the protectors of those who need care, those who are most vulnerable, who are usually, when not the aged or children, members of the poorer, less educated classes, i.e. the populists. And here is an issue involving science, in which the educated constitutionalists can continually appeal to technical knowledge in order to support their subjugation of the uneducated populists. What has happened is that the old Ciceronian tag salus populi suprema lex, ‘The Safety of the People is the Supreme Law’ has been extended by means of a concern about public health, or, let us state it plainly, that is biblically, a fear of pestilence, in order to blunt the populists’ ability to resist the political dominance of the constitutionalists.
There are doubtless other factors to be mentioned in addition to these four. The rise of technology, and rationalism, or the influence of technical discourse rather than deliberative discourse in politics – all noticed by figures like Heidegger, Oakeshott and Habermas – all of these are important. The modern state, that possibly transitional entity, found it convenient to embrace the rationalism of Bacon and Descartes, a rationalism which was sanctioned by Locke and Newton, which dominated the Age of Enlightenment, was extended to society in order to justify a science of politics which was actually a science of economics: so that by the time of Thatcher and Reagan politicians found it hard to appeal to any other standard than that of statistical prosperity. There might also be something to say about the rise of science as a profession in the nineteenth century, along with its shadow subjects of the social sciences, in which the model of the individual genius like Bohr or Einstein or, earlier, Galileo, Newton or Gauss, was replaced by the collaborative and collectivised professional work of laboratories funded by states or other great entities like the European Union. Scientists, for the time being, as a class, have a vested interest in perpetuating the established order that enables them to engage in their work: and so they serve the political system ideologically at the same time as they carry out what continues to be known as ‘science’. It is hard to know what attitude to take to fashionable monopolies such as the scientific view of climate change and COVID-19. No doubt there is such a thing as certainty, somewhere, and there is also doubt: but when there is so much evidence of the scientists acting politically then it is no wonder that certain populists are inclined to oppose the possible conspiracy by simply denying that what the scientists claim is so is so. This may be objectionable to the scientists, but they only have themselves to blame, since they have depended on the funding provided by the political class of the modern state which is willing to pay for ‘big science’ when it is in the interest of the state.
There is a conspiracy of sorts, and we have all been part of it, and we continue to be part of it – especially those of us who are university educated. (I say this as someone shaped by, and committed to, the university.) There is nothing inevitable about it: it has come out of a thousand contingencies; and it is in those contingencies that we have to find the hope that all this can be reversed. There was a Great Preset. It made Polis-20 possible. But, as Tocqueville saw, it threw up tendencies which pulled in different directions, and gave us a certain freedom of action against the state. Now there is a Great Reset which is designed to get rid of the state and establish something higher, purer, more caring, more dulling. But there are forces ranged against it, in populism, and in what we might call proper science, which is a sceptical science, conscious at all times of the possibility of its own corruption, and even in the residual stubbornness of the individual who will not agree just because everyone else is agreeing: all those lackeys and lickspittles, all those scribes and hypocrites.
A final thought on conspiracy.
If you examine the etymology of ‘conspiracy’ you will discover that it derives from con-spirare, the Latin for ‘to breathe together’ hence, by extension, ‘to plot together’. This is a good Shakespearian image, of Macbeth conferring with the Murderers, standing close, so they cannot be heard. To breathe – and together. Is it not amusing that the word ‘conspiracy’ has something to do with breath? But it means that the conspiracy here and now, the conspiracy of masks, distancing and lockdown, is, ironically, actually an anticonspiracy.
They want us to stop breathing together.
James Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.