The British spirit of commercial enterprise, which inspired Napoleon’s original putdown, has been diverted from keeping shops to storming them.
Every morning a human monsoon sweeps through every supermarket in the land, leaving the shelves empty and late risers desperate. Before long hoarders will start selling their surplus in the black market: “Hey, mate, wanna buy a bog roll? Ten quid, seeing it’s you…”
In the background one hears a steady hum of hopeful predictions, along the lines of Britain emerging at the other end of the pandemic a kinder, more cohesive nation. That vindicates Bertie Russell’s famous – and wrong – postulate that the sun having risen yesterday is no guarantee it’ll rise today.
In other words, neither the past nor, in this case, the present offers any indication of what the future will bring. On the other hand, wishful thinking going contrary to every available piece of evidence is supposed to be fool-proof.
If the hacks promise that heartless, selfish hoarders will eventually turn into charitable, self-sacrificial angels soaring above human wickedness in the spirit of universal solidarity, then that’s how it’s going to be.
Anyone who still believes, for old times’ sake, that assertions must be substantiated can only say one thing to that bien pensant nonsense: Humbug! (Decorum prevents the use of a more gonadic word in this space.)
Coronavirus has served up a test – and we are failing. By ‘we’ I don’t just mean the British: all Europeans are acting the same way. Our French neighbours are telling us that the local supermarkets are emptying out at the same rate as in London, and essential supplies are becoming scarce.
It ought to be clear to anyone whose mind isn’t wholly warped by modern ideologies that, by getting rid of the universal basis for morality, we have got rid of morality. Oh, to be sure, some restraints to beastliness survive in the still waters of philistine comfort, provided they remain still. But when the waters get rough, civilised restraints sink to the bottom.
No human documents, all those constitutions, declarations, bills of rights or what have you, can keep the social fabric from being shredded to tatters by an acute crisis. It takes an authority transcending human agency to do that, and no such authority is any longer recognised.
If the coronavirus test lasts as long as the pessimists are suggesting, then the best predictor of mass behaviour will come from William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. We’ll all turn into feral children, and there won’t be any rules.
Whether or not the crisis is to a large extent manufactured is immaterial. I suspect it might be, but that doesn’t matter one way or the other. What does matter is that most people take it as real and behave accordingly.
Financial experts are talking about a spate of wholesale bankruptcies lurking just round the corner, and true enough: the economic consequences of the world shutting down for months will be dire. But much more catastrophic is the moral bankruptcy driving to the wall not just individuals or businesses but what passes for the whole modern civilisation.
And for this kind of bankruptcy the state can provide no relief. It can only make things worse – this regardless of who is in charge. We are indeed a sorry lot.