Covid 19 and the Future: Utopia or Dystopia

Once again an article by Simon Wilson has piqued my interest. In my post “The Culture of Idealised Individualism” I ventured to suggest that he is a bit preachy, a bit righteous, at times a bit of a high-horsed moralist. Certainly, I said, much of his thinking is left of centre. And as I emphasized in that post this is still a democracy and he is entitled to his opinion and to express it. He has a soap-box in the form of the NZ Herald. I have this blog with a rather less extensive reach. Yet Mr. Wilson recently put forward certain arguments and propositions that should be answered or challenged.

Mr Wilson’s piece in the NZ Herald for 5 May 2020 is entitled “Covid 19 Coronavirus: Simon Wilson: Is this the death of neoliberalism?” It is an interesting piece but is primarily a paean against a rather ill-defined view of neo-liberalism with a hope for some utopian collectivist future – a better society – under a benevolent Government that will look after our every need.

Allow me to unpick a few things. First, in the preceding paragraph I used the word “utopian”. The meaning usually ascribed to that word is an imaginary place or commonwealth, enjoying a perfect social, legal, and political system and depicted in a book in 1516 by Sir Thomas More.

Wilson’s words

“What we are doing now has the makings of a great achievement of civilisation. Those societies that get their pandemic response right have the chance to become more resilient, less burdened by their current failings, better able to face the next crisis and the next”

sound like a search for Utopia.

But was More’s Utopia a perfect society? Did he intend it to be a blueprint for an ideal commonwealth? Quite the contrary. More was a lawyer, and one of the skills that he learned at the Inns of Court – the training ground for members of the legal profession – was case putting. Case putting was a form of argument that was employed when one wanted to demonstrate the futility or impossibility of a certain proposition. It is a form of demonstrative oratory – one of the tools of rhetoric.

More demonstrated that his Utopia was not possible by the use of irony and ambivalence. “Utopia” from the Greek means “no place” – rather like Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon” which, of course, is “nowhere” spelled backwards

Behind what is ostensibly a serious text is satire. Ruskin considered it one of the most really mischievous books ever written and Erasmus, a contemporary and correspondent of More, suggested that one should read it if one wanted to laugh. A perfect society? I don’t think so.

But – and this is my second point – the word Utopia provides us with another – an opposite – and that is the word “dystopia” or, as John Stuart Mill put it, “too bad to be practicable.”

The word is frequently used in speculative fiction describing not a world we should not like to live in but rather one that we should avoid.

Mr. Wilson refers to the concept of dystopia in his article, quoting a libertarian MP at Westminster who suggested that a bill being introduced implemented a dystopian society. He went on to argue that in fact the measures being implemented are anything but that and that steps that are being taken are to build a better society. He suggests that New York is an example of dystopia.

Mr. Wilson is incorrect. The society in which we would rather not live has been forced upon us. The spread of a virulent disease, the illness and sudden deaths of many victims, the stress on public health systems, the disruption of movement, the interference with trade, the closure of borders all are aspects of a dystopian world.

And the unprecedented intrusion of the State into the lives of citizens, the prohibitions on freedom of movement and assembly, the indirect demeaning of any criticism or questioning all are examples of a society in which we would rather not live.

We are in a dystopia. Who really wants to live in this locked-down or partially locked-down world? We have been gradually sliding into dystopia since Covid 19 spread from its source to infect the world.

The dystopia is going to continue. The free society that we have enjoyed has come to an end. It is unlikely to return in an instantly recognizable form.

It has been frequently observed throughout this crisis that the Government has interfered with civil liberties and the ordinary lives of New Zealanders to an extent not seen since World War II – in fact I would probably suggest that the 1951 Waterfront Crisis with the invocation of the Public Safety Conservation Act (now fortunately repealed) was probably a more recent serious interference with civil liberties.

Dystopia not only encompasses unpalatable social situations. A reading of many of the science and speculative fiction works on the topic present a number of scenarios. One, favoured by Orwell (“1984”), Robert Heinlein (“Revolt in 2100”), Margaret Attwood (“The Handmaids Tale”), Ray Bradbury(“Fahrenheit 451”), and Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”) suggest a political dystopia.

Film has also presented some graphic portrayals of dystopian societies. Based on the novels of Phillip K Dick “Bladerunner” and “Minority Report” are two examples.

“Soylent Green” based on Harry Harrison’s “Make Room, Make Room” propounded a society that literally fed on itself as the oceans died. There were disturbing aspects of voluntary euthanasia with rather ghastly consequences that made for a shocking climax.

“Logans Run” which propounded that everyone over 30 was a burden and therefore should be eliminated was very eerie, made more so by the initial panic over the risk of Covid-19 to those of us over 70 – as if we couldn’t assess the risk ourselves.

Ours is not as bad as these imagined dystopias but compared with the life that we enjoyed, the freedoms that we had and the relatively light hand of the State on our affairs, what we are in now is certainly dystopic.

I do not share Mr Wilson’s optimism that this is going to herald a new and better society. I see a continuing dystopia of increasing State interference in the lives of citizens, more State control over and limitations upon the freedoms that we have taken for granted for so long.

The main point of Mr. Wilson’s article is to trumpet the end of neo-liberalism although, as I have said, he doesn’t clearly define what he means. Roughly defined it means a modified form of liberalism tending to favour free market capitalism. Presumably he is calling for a return to greater State control of the economy and in the lives of citizens, citing the rush of corporates to the Government for assistance.

Certainly in this crisis the Government has a role. But let us not forget the purpose of the Government. It is to serve the people, not to control them. The people of Government are not called “public servants” for nothing.

The Government exists to protect the rights of the people, and to provide for their protection from foreign and domestic threats, to provide for the protection of their persons and property by a defined and clear Rule of Law framework and to allow individuals to choose for themselves how they will live their lives within the law both socially and economically. The role of the Government is therefore very limited and certainly not extensive.

At the moment the involvement of the Government in the lives of its citizens is highly invasive – reminiscent of a dystopia – and  the current situation will extend into Alert Level 2. And how long will that last? How long will we be subjected to decrees and proclamations from bureaucrats in Wellington? Do we really need to be patted on the head and told how good we have been by those who are meant to serve us? Do we really need to be told that because of the idiocy of the few all of us may suffer restrictions. That sounds like patronising school teacher-speak to me.

So how long will it be?  Until we get a vaccine? Or some other equally distant event? By the time we finally emerge into Alert Level 0 – if we ever do – the population will be so habituated to the 1:00 pm update that free will and freedom of choice will have vanished.

It will be the Government who will be telling us how to live our lives – as I said in an earlier post

“what to buy, how we should do this and how we should do that, and gradually we are allowing other people to do our thinking for us. The time will come when no longer will we make our own decisions, but some “big brother” will tell us what to do and what to think. We will be told who is good and who is bad, whom we shall love and whom we shall hate.”

I am sure that this is not the result that Mr Wilson wants. Nor do I believe, in his heart of hearts that he wants to see an end of freedom of enterprise, individual initiative, individual thinking and innovation and all the other aspects of a free and open society – especially the freedoms that he enjoys as a journalist to question authority and to speak truth to power.

It may be that the Government can provide, during this crisis, some direction. But it should have an exit strategy – mainly for itself. And we should know now what that exit strategy is. The resources that the Government has deployed should be viewed as temporary only – not as some initial investment with a view to maintaining control long after the crisis is over.

Mr Wilson’s rosy view of the future – of the opportunity that Covid 19 has presented – sounds hopeful on the surface – Utopian almost. But as we now know Utopia is an illusion.

The collectivist solution proposed by Mr Wilson, with its reduced focus upon the individual and an overly regulated and directed society – both politically and economically – is, to those who value liberty, initiative, innovation and individualism, a recipe for a continued dystopia.

History’s Distant Trumpet

I must say that I have been observing the activities of President Trump with a sense of deja vu or, as I have put it in the subject line, some notes of history’s distant trumpet.
 
 
There seem to have been a number of occasions within the various structures of what could be called participatory democracies or limited participatory democracies where there has been a content between the legislative and executive arms of government. I exclude the city states of Classical Greece and the activities of the various tyrants because of the disparity of constitutional arrangements but there are certain parallel between the decline of the Roman Republic and the crisis that faces the American Republic.
 
 
In the Roman example from about 146 BC – 13 BC there was an erosion of constitutional arrangements  where individuals such as Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gnaeus Pompieus Magnus, Gaius Julius Caesar and Gaius Octavius Thurinus (later Gaius Octavius Caesar and finally Augustus) acting as they considered in the best interests or the Roman Republic, sought to cure the ills that beset it.
 
 
Of course there was a large amount of self interest involved, particularly on the part of Gaius Julius Caesar. Perhaps the only one of those who sought “to make Rome great again” who was acting for the benefit of the Republic was Sulla, but his methods left much to be desired. In addition he was aligned with the “optimates” – the conservative traditionalists of Rome – rather than one of the “populares”. But what happened was a gradual erosion of the participatory aspects of the Roman Constitution and the substitution of an arrogation of power by an individual. This, of course, reached its zenith with Augustus and the ultimate achievement of the Principate and in many respects Augustus was the smartest politician of them all because he maintained that he was not interested in the power that in fact he possessed.
 
 
But gradually over the period in question the democratic institutions and participatory methods of the Senate and the voting arrangements gave way to government by decree by small groups (the Triumviri) or individuals (in the case of Sulla and Gaius Julius Caesar as dictators).
 
 
The biggest difference between what happened to to Roman Republic and today’s US crisis is that all of the powerful individuals (and others such as Gaius Licinius Crassus, Gaius Marius, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Longinius Cassius) managed to raise their own military forces to back them. Gaius Octavius acknowledges this in the first few lines of the res gestae – http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Augustus/Res_Gestae/1*.html
 
 
President Trump doesn’t have the power to raise his own private army and I would hope that if he attempted to use his powers as Commander in Chief to erode the Constitution he would receive a pushback. Even so, the power shift from the people to the President carries with it some of the notes of that distant trumpet. (For further reading see Catherine Steel “The End of the Roman Republic 146 – 44 BC” Ronald Syme “The Roman Revolution”, Tom Holland “Rubicon” and Carson McCullough’s novelisation of the period in her “Masters of Rome” series.
 
 
As a final thought have a look at a bust of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Am I imagining a resemblance to President Trump?
 
 
One of the joys of a summer holiday in New Zealand is the opportunity to really dig into some serious reading. Although it had occurred to me before reading Diarmiad McCullough’s excellent biography of Thomas Cromwell, I was even more struck by the similarities of the governing styles of Henry VIII and President Trump. Like Trump, Henry was pretty merciless with those who displeased him and Cromwell – his arch fixer – was one of those victims. But what is interesting is the way that Henry governed during what Professor Geoffrey Elton called “The Tudor Revolution in Government” – a concept disputed by McCullough.
 
 
Henry was a prolific user of Proclamations as a means of getting things done. A review of the proclamations of his reign reveal rules and regulation addressing most aspects of day to day life in England. My especial interest in Proclamations focussed on those involving the printing press and the dissemination of ideas, but what is important is that although there may have been statutes that set out broad rule, proclamations were the day to day machinery by which those rules were put into effect. As the break with Rome proceeded and Henry began the land grab that ultimately ended with the dissolution of the monasteries (this is a gross simplification of a very complex series of activities) he insisted upon a legal basis for his actions validated by Parliament in the form of legislation.
 
 
Once the legislation was enacted, proclamations attended to the machinery side of the law. Indeed, any doubt about the legal validity of proclamations was dealt with by the Statute of Proclamations (I think it was 1536). Proclamations therefore allowed Henry to legislate by this means as well as with the help of Parliament.
 
 
If you have a look at the way Henry behaved – mercurial, unpredictable, impulsive, dictatorial – one can draw many parallels with the behaviour of Trump. I would not go so far as to say that proclamations were the sixteenth century equivalent of tweets. Perhaps their parallel is the Executive Order so beloved by this President and others before him. Furthermore, Henry and President Trump share an imposing physical presence although I doubt that Henry would favour the long tailed tie preferred by the President.
 
 
I recommend McCullough’s book on Cromwell. That said, it is not an easy afternoon read and is demanding and detailed. I have some familiarity with the events covered which made it a bit easier but that said I found myself reading a chapter at a time and taking an hour or so to digest what I had read. It provides an intellectual and academic backdrop to Hilary Mantell’s novels on Cromwell, the third of which, I understand, is on the way.
 
 
There are many other notes of history’s trumpet which I could advance. None of the parallels above or any others that there may be are on all fours with current events but many of the underlying themes are the same. The Stuarts tried to govern without Parliament and that ended badly for Charles I and to a lesser extent James II.
 
 
I suppose the overall lesson is that politics and democratic institutions are fragile things that carry within them the seeds of their own downfall. I hope that the present crisis in the US resolves itself in favour of the dream of the Framers. I often ask myself what Tom Jefferson or James Madison would think of things today and I imagine that there would be mutterings about the tree of liberty needing a bit of nourishment – need I say more?
 
 
I guess my biggest concern is that somewhere along the line the President may just step over the line and put the Constitution to one side either by completely ignoring Congress, governing by proclamation (Executive Order) or (heaven forbid) ignoring the wish of the people should they go against him in 2020. I don’t think it is impossible that he would ignore the will of the people and interpreting an electoral loss as a victory.