One of the issues I have received most critical feedback on over these past months is the warning that we are endangering our relatively free and democratic societies. Many people who contacted me about this issue seem to believe that there is nothing that can destroy the Western governance systems. It is, supposedly, too robust to be corrupted. They are wrong. Below I explain why. This is particularly important as the Corona obsession is winding down, with statistical reality finally catching up to hyperbolic narratives. If we don’t learn the right lessons about what happened these past five months, authoritarianism will continue its long-term hostile takeover of supposedly open society.
Let me start with some rather obvious historical observations. Open, free society is a historical oddity. Even though there have been certain lesser versions scattered throughout human civilizations, the modern form that exists today in, say, the European Union is unique and very recent. It is the result of centuries of slow evolution and crucial historic moments going its way. This is especially important to realise for the younger generations. Growing up in freedom does not mean that it has always been thus, nor that it always will be. Your frame of reference, your status quo, is by no means a historical standard. Quite the opposite in fact.
The Basic Conditions for Open Society
The reason that open society has only been sporadically observed throughout history also explains the need to be concerned in 2020: its essential ingredients are fragile and often run counter to human psychology. Open society requires a respect for principles that do not sit well with many of our human urges. It requires a profound and active mistrust of political power accumulation, and it requires a painstakingly slow expansion of corresponding traditions and customs. If these necessary conditions are not met, society will tilt towards alternatives, as it so often has in the past. It is therefore frightening to observe that the first two have already been violated, while the last is balancing on a knife’s edge.
The first condition above relates to our psyche. Two enormously influential emotions are those of fear and of groupthink. Human beings are fragile, beset by dangers all around us. As a result, we often look for comfort in numbers, associating with specific groups that provide (imaginary) safety. Both are often directly in conflict with open society. Open society deals with threats in inefficient ways. Whether it is terrorism, or daily life-threatening dangers, or environmental decay, living in a free society means that authorities are limited in what they can do to fight our individual vulnerabilities.
Finding and stopping potential terrorists is made significantly more difficult by privacy concerns, limits to police powers and individual rights. Reducing traffic accidents (and correlated deaths) is hampered by the fact that democratic governments cannot easily limit freedom of movement or monitor individual drivers. Environmental pollution cannot simply be stopped by decrees; as these past decades have shown, most serious attempts by the state to change capitalist behaviour have ended up in court or never made it out of political commissions. Open society is inefficient at dealing with threats. As such, it does not easily coexist with our Darwinian longing for safety.
Likewise, open society is typically incompatible with significant groupthink. The safety we find in groups comes at a price: it makes us exclude others, thus severely limiting freedoms. Too much nationalism, too much ideology, too much identification of like minded people will all lead to insider-outsider models in which individuals are no longer able to make their own personal choices.
The second condition mentioned above is deep scepticism with respect to power-accumulation. The reason is obvious, and very well understood by the US Founding Fathers, for example. They set-up a carefully crafted system of checks and balances. Even with the best of intentions, political leaders tend to fall into corruption and systemic abuse when left unchecked. Making sure that this phenomenon is minimised requires institutional balance and accountability to the people. When an (initially benign) government is given too much power, it will stop respecting this essential framework and begin believing in its own decision-making superiority over other alternatives. To avoid that from happening, both rival institutions as well as the general population needs to aggressively punish attempts at doing so. News media play a fundamental role in this.
The third condition is slow expansion of democratic traditions and customs. Any well-functioning legal system rests on this principle, either directly (common law) or indirectly (civil law). The same can be said for society at large. The reason why democratisation in many countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, has failed is that you cannot impose theoretical systems on populations that do not have the chance to internalise such changes. The EU is a product of many centuries of slow accumulation of respect for its current governance systems. These centuries included episodes as dramatic as the establishment of the Magna Carta, the Thirty Years War, and the French Revolution. Without this framework of internalised customs and conditions, democratic and open institutions are bound to fail.
The Violation of Open Society in 2020
All three conditions above have been severely undermined by the Corona hysteria. The ease with which this has happened should make us pause. The fact that policies were directly copied from China- with a very distinct and authoritarian governance model- should be a source of even greater reflection. The fact that all of this has happened without any serious push-back or even simple debate in supposedly critical media and parliamentary settings should make us ring the alarm bells.
Starting with the first condition, fear has been the main motivator behind policy making in 2020. For some reason, Covid19 triggered an anxiety unseen in modern times. Warlike talk of “frontline doctors and nurses,” daily updates on numbers of victims, and doom predictions filling the frontpages all triggered the most vulnerable elements of what makes us human. Facts no longer mattered. Selective obsession with certain data (absolute numbers of deaths) and the ignoring of others (relative deaths, average age of victims, naturally flattening curves) led to social psychosis.
This in turn opened the door for governments to take control of society in any way possible, completely disregarding the idea that open society cannot fully eradicate threats without giving up its very essence. If anything is incompatible with freedom it is to lock up individuals who have not committed crimes and who do not pose a threat to their surroundings. Yet that is exactly what lockdown did.
Similarly, groupthink reached all-time highs in media and politics. Anyone questioning the wisdom of the extreme action taken was either ignored or viciously attacked. One only needs to read up on how the international media has attacked the Swedish government to find a depressing illustration of this phenomenon. To quote George W. Bush rightfully maligned words after 9/11:either you are with us, or you are against us. No middle ground is apparently possible anymore.
Moreover, borders were closed, even within Schengen countries, and immigration stopped altogether. Covid19 made the world one in which we are once again divided by nationality and territory. If you travel to a country like Spain or the UK, you are expected to quarantine. You are an outside threat.
The violation of the second condition (aggressive scepticism when it comes to power accumulation by the state) requires little explanation. Governments took full control of society, to the extreme extent of locking everyone up in their own homes without any serious legal recourse, and yet there wasn’t as much as a peep from the media or even opposition parties. Fear and hysteria meant that the state was the only game in town. Individual rights were suspended without any democratic mechanism keeping an eye on constitutional legitimacy or long-term consequences.
The third condition (carefully nurtured traditions and customs) is, at the very least, undermined. We have set a precedent in which individual rights can be swept aside without any serious push-back. We have set a precedent for governments taking full (complete, utter, unrestricted) control of society. We have set a precedent for police and military acting as tools of oppression against a law-abiding citizenry. We have set a precedent for any type of statistically visible threat being sufficient justification to, literally, lockdown society. After all, what exactly have been the criteria to assess whether Covid19 is so much more serious than the flu, heart disease, traffic accidents, etc? There has been no attempt whatsoever to explain what metrics were used to legitimise the suspension of freedom.
The Authoritarian Future
Does anyone really believe that everything will go back to normal? That the precedents set will not be used again in the future? That there won’t be a new “pandemic” to be feared? That there won’t be a new terrorist threat? That there won’t be new reasons for governments to suspend basic rights?
Politicians have been in love with the term “new normal” lately. This implies that many of the measures in force now will be made permanent. Some will be continuously visible, including limits to the right to mass gatherings and demonstrations. Others will be dormant, used when perceived threats “justify” their activation.
Almost all of the legislation passed during the War on Terror era is still in force today, despite being introduced as temporary measures to fight Al Qaeda. Few people lay awake at night worrying about Al Qaeda in 2020, so why are these laws still there? Because power is hardly ever returned once given. Moreover, there always exist some excuses not to do so: after Al Qaeda came ISIS, and after ISIS came organised crime. With those measures, our freedoms and principles of open society were permanently restricted. Covid19 is likely to make those restrictions look like peanuts.
Terrorist threat levels have been high or medium in Europe ever since 9/11, despite no one believing that terrorism is an existential threat to society right now. What do these threat levels mean? That authorities have extraordinary rights to override basic freedoms. It is not hard to see a similar system being used for pandemics from now on. Permanent medium threat levels when it comes to viruses, and threat levels peaking during flu season, for example. Never a return to actual normality. The new normal means permanent institutionalised fear. With social distancing, temporary lockdowns, and other such extremist measures turned into constant features of society.
During the War on Terror it was security experts who decided which measures were appropriate, with little to no political oversight. Now it is the medical world. The principle stays the same, with governments being unaccountable for their internal decision-making processes.
Another horrifying example would be tracing apps. With them pushed now as a necessary step to contain future outbreaks, does anyone genuinely believe they will stay limited to voluntary and anonymous tools? It is easy to see how they slowly become an obligatory feature, for example by making it a manufacturing requirement for any mobile phone sold. And then, slowly over time, they will start being used for non-medical purposes. Terrorism, crime, speeding on the motorway…
The troubling truth is that most people would probably be alright with all of that. After all, if we care this much about death rates and prioritise it essentially over everything else, why not be consistent and minimise deaths even further? Even the use of facemasks- still not proven to be effective in any meaningful way- adds to this. A society where everyone is a potential risk, where everyone is a potential danger, is a society of fear and thus, open to authoritarian abuse.
Even if current political leadership is genuine about its desire to return to a free and open society, it is easy to imagine a future in which a different type of politician has other ideas and uses all these authoritarian tools to radically alter governance as we know it. All they would need is a hyped-up threat to reactivate everything that was used in these past five months. If Covid19 is anything to go by, no objective metrics or criteria will need to be shown. As long as the population is sufficiently fearful, we’ll allow authorities to do anything. 2020 has proven that.
Finally, a word on China’s model. There is certainly an interesting and potentially valuable debate to be had about the future of democracy, and whether the West can learn from other governance approaches. This includes the current system in Beijing. There are clearly certain advantages to greater authoritarianism. It is not the future I wish for my son, but I recognise the validity of the debate. Let us have that conversation openly and explicitly. Let us not sleepwalk into totalitarianism by default.