Why governments respond to coronavirus by converting so-called liberal democracies into police states is reasonably clear.
Any political institution of modernity, regardless of its self-description, is mainly concerned with self-empowerment. However, democracies need a credible justification for their powerlust, and in that sense Covid-19 is a godsend. The message of “it’s all for your own good” can’t be gainsaid easily.
That, however, doesn’t mean it can’t be gainsaid at all. One would think that people weaned on the ideals of liberty would have them coded into their DNA. One would think they’d revolt against losing their liberties and livelihoods, some of both doubtless irrevocably.
One would think wrong. HMG’s draconian measures are enjoying overwhelming public support. Even the health secretary’s threat to ban the one permitted exercise outing a day didn’t cause much excitement.
When reality belies assumptions, especially on a massive scale, there must be something wrong with the assumptions. So no, the ideals of liberty aren’t really coded into the people’s DNA.
Yet democracy has had plenty of time to create a new type of man, one prepared to die defending his secular liberties, one ever ready to repeat Patrick Henry’s words: “Give me liberty or give me death!”
A new type of man has indeed been created, but his ringing words are different: “Take all my freedoms, including one from want, arrest me if I venture outside without a valid reason – but please, please protect me from any risk of death for as long as possible.”
People congenitally fear death; such is our nature, and in that sense we’re no different from skunks. But we differ from such creatures in that we’re capable of fearing death for reasons other than purely animal ones.
For the Judaeo-Christian civilisation was built on the belief that life never ends; that, an animal though a man may be, he isn’t just an animal. He is endowed with a high purpose that transcends earthly concerns, and his life everlasting will depend on how his temporal life serves that purpose.
Hence man used to fear not only death, but also the judgement after death. It followed logically that some metaphysical considerations trumped physical ones, including death. That logic was indeed emblazoned into man’s consciousness, and it largely determined his attitude to the state.
A materialist who believes that his life will end at death will always attach a great importance to his physicality, along with its trappings. Someone who knows he is immortal will pay less attention to the stage set within which the eternal drama of his life is played out.
The same applies to the complex interaction between the state and the individual. The Christian believes his life is eternal. He also knows from history books that the life of a state isn’t: even extremely successful ones only ever lasted between 1,000 and 1,500 years.
Compared to eternity, this stretch is minuscule. That individual will therefore perceive himself as more significant than the state and for that reason alone will never accept its tyranny.
Etched into his soul is the conviction that he is transcendent, but the state is transient. Hence in everything that matters he can only regard the state not as his master but as his servant.
If the state assumes the role of master, then the believer may either resist it or pretend to be going along to protect himself from persecution. But inwardly he’ll never acquiesce.
At the same time the materialist may well accept the tyranny of a powerful state more readily. After all, his lifespan is much shorter than the state’s. The state had existed before his birth and will happily survive his death.
That’s why when it is communicated to him that he must obey the state no matter what, then, however much he may loathe the idea, he’ll find it hard to come up with a strong argument against it while at the same time remaining a staunch materialist.
Modern democracy pilfered its name from Athens, but Johnson or Macron can’t be confused with Pericles or Solon, today’s parliaments with agoras, and today’s voters with Hellenic citizens.
Citizenship in a democracy implies direct participation in government. Hence it presupposes an ability to self-govern on the basis of a well-developed faculty to judge affairs of the state, both in general and in particular.
That faculty can’t be spread too wide, whatever the level of public education. That’s why both Plato and Aristotle believed that, when the franchise exceeded 5,000 or so, it became unworkable – democracy turns into mob rule (“deviant constitution”, as Aristotle described it).
Anybody who believes that our comprehensively educated electorate is qualified to govern itself is deluded.
Most voters are staggeringly ignorant of politics, and especially how it fits into the general picture of life. When asked to substantiate their opinions – and God knows they have them – they’re not only incapable of doing so, but are in fact unaware of what constitutes a valid argument.
If Athenian schools taught rhetoric and philosophy above all, today’s schools teach Homosexuality for Beginners, The Use of Condoms, and Multi-Culti Virtue. A country whose education breeds mass idiocy can’t be a true democracy, especially if it extends suffrage to millions.
It can only be a sham one, a system that indoctrinates people to accept the illusion that they govern themselves. In reality, they are governed by a small, typically self-serving elite. That it ascends to power by a show of hands is an irrelevant technicality.
Such an elite consciously uproots every surviving sprig of higher freedom, along with the memory of what it was. It brainwashes people to believe that uniformity is diversity, egotism is individuality and voting is liberty.
In that undertaking our rulers succeed spectacularly. Give them a few generations of such brainwashing and they’ll produce a mass unable to define freedom, having no taste for it and ready to swap it, however defined, for a longer life.
This brings back the question in the title. Would we accept a popular vote in favour of selling us into slavery? Would we feel that democracy is thereby served?
For make no mistake about it: coronavirus shows that, given sufficient provocation, our public will happily underwrite such a transaction – at a derisory price.