2020 will undoubtedly go down in history as the year “lockdown” was introduced into most people’s vocabularies, the year in which mass imprisonment by decree, without charge, trial, conviction, or even any evidence whatsoever of being sick, was introduced by ruling classes the world over as an acceptable, indeed the only acceptable, way to fight a new disease. All those who value the most fundamental of human freedoms such a policy violates, including but by no means limited to libertarians, have for months at this point been united in opposition to “lockdown” policies being imposed. Resistance is deeper and more widespread than is often appreciated among the general public, and could lead to greater unrest than what we have seen already, up to and including world revolution, if lockdown policies are never eliminated. Still, the question must be asked: how did we get to a point where “lockdowns” could be imposed in the first place? How did we get to a point where the ruling political classes considered it an acceptable option?
The Consequences of Lockdown Policies
While I do not pretend to offer a remotely complete answer to these questions, I would like to share some thoughts on the topic. Lockdown policies are particularly striking given their horrific consequences, both material and moral. The moral consequences of abrogating fundamental human freedoms are obvious, but it is often overlooked that even in most of the 20th century’s totalitarian states an average person could leave the home and go to a dance lesson, a sporting match, or a music concert without being branded a criminal.
An average person could also get a haircut. The maligning of protesters for “just wanting haircuts” obscures the real issue: if we aren’t even allowed to get a haircut, what hope is there for liberty? What does a regime banning haircuts by decree, a step not taken even by the classic totalitarian states, say about its claim to be a liberal democracy? Is there any line whatsoever the state will not now cross in its intrusions into everyday life?
The material consequences are also horrific. Large fractions of entire nations around the world have had their jobs, clients, and businesses stripped from them by their own government virtually overnight, plunging them into poverty and misery. Their customers have also been deprived of their goods and services, leading to an enormous diminution of the general standard of living. This has constituted a great depression, the first on a global scale that was deliberately inflicted by governments.
Given these horrific consequences, why would any government enact such a program? Even if they value the liberty of their people very little, governments extract their tax revenue from business activity; less business activity means less resources are available for the state, so one would think self-interest alone would militate against these policies. It is sometimes said that a deadly disease like the one we’re dealing with today would also lead to a great depression, but consider that we have seen record declines in gross domestic product; in the United States GDP shrank 32.9% in the second quarter. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) appears to have a death rate well under 1%; even if the more aggressive estimates of a death rate around 1% seen earlier were actually true and the entire population caught it, the decline in GDP if absolutely nothing was done would be somewhere around 1%, nowhere near the 32% we did see under the lockdown. Even the Black Death itself only killed a third of Europe’s population, so a disease would have to have a death toll comparable to that to even equal the impact of lockdown policies.
The state of course has a habit of seizing as much power from the rest of society as it can get away with. In the name of empowering the state so it may become as close to a god as possible, deliberate economic self-destruction is actually far from unheard of, no matter what any concept of purely material self-interest might have to say about it. The archetypal example is the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which from 1975 to 1979 ruthlessly stripped from the Cambodian people even the most basic of everyday freedoms that even those in other totalitarian regimes could take for granted, murdering a full one quarter of the entire country’s population in the process, and inflicting a disastrous and near-total collapse in the standard of living for those who survived. Of all the deliberately-imposed policies in history, the Khmer Rouge might in fact be the closest analogue to “lockdown” in terms of its effects, though much more severe in their case than it is in ours, at least so far.
A Culture of Vulnerability
Of course, the state can only seize this kind of power if it can get away with it. How does this happen? The answer lies in the culture of fear that has been steadily building and increasing since the 20th century. As Frank Furedi (among others) has ably pointed out over the years, modern culture, at least in developed Western nations, is characterized by a profound belief in the vulnerability of the human person. This is perhaps most obvious within identity politics. While identity politics as such is nothing new, the form it takes in our age, where the driving question may be best phrased as “What do you identify as?”, not something like “Who are you?”, is.
“I identify as” is tentative, vulnerable, and subject to revision, whereas “I am” is definitive, resilient, and stable. The latter characterized movements such as national revivals in the 19th century, whereas the former has perhaps reached its most advanced form in the 21st century transgender movement. As rude and annoying as “misgendering” or “deadnaming” can be for those who experience it, it is truly striking that such acts are characterized as a threat to or “erasure” of the existence of trans people, as if their very being is dependent on constant affirmation by the outside world. This view reveals that the transgender movement as we know it today is not a bold and liberatory act of volition to defy and redefine social and cultural norms in the name of a sovereign independent individual, as it is often characterized as by both its supporters and (especially) conservative opponents, but rather precisely the opposite.
These same characteristics are widely shared across all the identity groups that are under the umbrella of “intersectional social justice”. Even its opponents, including but by no means limited to many white nationalists, white supremacists, and the men’s movements, often evince a similar mentality, just with the top and bottom of the identity-group “stack” reversed.
This view of the human being as fragile, dependent, and vulnerable is the fundamental premise of what Frank Furedi has termed “therapy culture”, the idea that the individual, and by extension society, is incapable of handling his own affairs in a healthy, competent, fair, respectful, or otherwise correct way and therefore should be, indeed must be, managed from the outside by bureaucratic institutions comprised of suitably trained professionals. The principle of this extremely paternalistic ideology extends into the most trivial domains of everyday life, and is the root cause of the much-discussed “nanny state”, and has nurtured the latest manifestation of the “police state”. Paternalistic management even extends into the human mind and soul, as evidenced by the shockingly intrusive campaigns to change implicit and unconscious attitudes and thoughts to conform with the ideology of powerful social institutions.
This ideology also intersects with the cult of safety. Safety has been steadily elevated by our society as the guiding principle of human life. You can see the safety cult at work by noticing that it is so common as to be unremarkable for leaders in government to say their first duty is to “keep us safe” as ordinary citizens say to each other “be safe” and “stay safe”. For many years now almost every social institution has framed or reframed its mission to conform with the idea that safety comes first, to the extent that safety is often elevated above its ostensible purpose.
The Fruits of a Childhood in the Cult of Safety
This is seen most obviously and prominently in the childhood of those raised under its influence, where any activity that might be “unsafe” is forbidden, by custom and increasingly also by law. This especially includes any activity undertaken without the supervision of an adult or a bureaucratic institution. Thus the gradual assumption, at the judgment of individuals, of greater autonomy and risk-taking that characterizes natural and healthy child development in every animal including humans is stifled. Free play, the foundation of childhood, nears extinction.
This has consequences downstream that are only rarely appreciated. After all, are not sex, love, and romance forms of free play? Many of the same faculties and values that support free play for children also ultimately support the birth of these same children. Playfulness is ubiquitous among couples in love, and though sexual awakening is still in their future children practice through play the situations they will find themselves in as grown men and women in love. What happens when they are deprived of the opportunity to develop these faculties?
We might see precisely what we see today, a broad retreat from sex, love, romance, and intimacy, coined “the sex recession” in this fascinating 2018 story by Kate Julian in The Atlantic. For decades virginity and singlehood have become increasingly common, sex and relationships less common; in the United States there has been a secular trend upward in the average age of virginity loss since around 1990. This phenomenon is most advanced in Japan and other East Asian countries.
Interestingly, the “sexual revolution”, in this context a long-term rise in sexual activity not associated with loving relationships, marriage, or childbearing during most of the 20th century, never really occurred in the developed East Asian countries like it did in the developed West. With what we know now about the broader retreat from intimacy, was the sexual revolution itself a symptom of a retreat from intimacy? After all, marriage and childbearing are usually considered less “safe” than casual sex today, perhaps precisely because it is less emotionally meaningful, and thus risky to one’s psyche, than marriage. Over time this might reveal itself in a shift toward more casual relationships, then as the aversion to intimacy advances still further even casual relationships become too dangerous, and the total amount of sex begins to fall. This idea, which would also imply that we’re about a century (as opposed to 30 years) into this process, is actually supported by a survey taken by Clelia Mosher in the 1890s, actually the earliest known sex survey of any kind, that shows that sexual frequency and pleasure was substantially higher back then than it is now.
The more recent secular decline in sex, intimacy, and marriage has been accompanied by a secular decline in fertility and childbirth. After all, childbirth is a creative and ultimately risky act that requires something of a leap of faith, the reward being both personal joy and the continuity of your race (in the sense of your ancestral line) into the future after your own demise. The effects of free play’s deprivation upon intimacy more generally should also be felt on childbearing, and that is indeed what we do see. We even now see tokophobia, a crippling fear of childbirth, exploding in incidence among young women, as well as a more general anti-natalism, undoubtedly all due to the culture of fear and safety.
Bureaucracy and the Static Society
More broadly, it may be that men and women have an instinctual aversion to bringing a child into such a world where there is only vulnerability, fear, an obsession with safety, and an absence of free play. A secular decline in economic growth and opportunity certainly doesn’t help, either. This is caused by a shrinking of economic freedom, since a managed and regulated society cannot permit any risk-taking or innovation that isn’t pre-approved, as this is alien to the bureaucratic mentality. A static society, or one permitting only incremental improvements to pre-existing categories the bureaucracy understands, is in their interests. After all, anything new might be a threat, both to the presumptively fragile and vulnerable populace and to the power of the bureaucratic institutions of the ruling class.
This also applies to the practice of science, which became extremely bureaucratized over the course of the 20th century. Concomitantly, scientific discoveries declined in frequency, magnitude, and importance even as the number of practicing scientists exploded. The same is true of more applied research and innovation. The pace of innovation has slowed markedly since the 19th century, and aside from the (to be fair quite impactful) advances in computer chips, equipment, and software consumer-facing technology slowed down even more in the late 20th century. Indeed, by most measures innovation entered into a kind of dark age starting in the World Wars, declining through the Cold War, mercifully actually recovering in recent decades. The last great consumer-facing innovations were in the 1960s, all traceable back to more basic inventions half a century earlier. Thus we should expect consumer-facing technology to speed up its advancement somewhat starting in the 2030s and 40s, but there is still a long way to go to reach the late 19th century heyday.
Where all this fits into lockdown is that if science, technology, or more generally anything new or unfamiliar is seen as a threat, if risk is to be extirpated from human life, if human freedom itself is undesirable because the vulnerable and fragile individual will scar himself and others by the use of it, locking down society in the face of a new virus seems like the best policy, particularly as the degeneracy induced by fear and the cult of safety progresses further.
Lockdown: the late-stage Culture of Fear
What lockdown represents is the culture of fear entering a new stage, where even everyday life is seen as too risky for any individual to manage. Instead of keeping our way of life by accepting less safety, we are now forced to keep greater safety by accepting the destruction of our way of life.
This implies the ultimate endgame for the safety cult; as those within it, which include our entire ruling class and the professional middle class, lose the faculties needed to navigate every day life they will become progressively less able to function as a ruling elite. If this degeneration continues, their eventual replacement is inevitable.
There is no obvious candidate for their replacement at an internal level, but the closest thing might be the elites in the tech industry, notably estranged from the ruling class proper. However, they might be too wed to the lockdown ethos. Less elite sections of the tech industry, particularly home-educated and more counter-cultural sections, might prove to be fertile ground for such a replacement class. It might also come from much more unexpected and exotic demographics.
At a more global level, Russia, along with eastern Europe more broadly, though it has its own problems has put up remarkably strong and durable resistance to the crisis of the 20th century’s cultural malaise, particularly surrounding risk and safety; social attitudes, most notably surrounding sex, romance, and childbearing, are not converging with the developed West. Oswald Spengler notably predicted Russia would rise over future centuries as the rest of the West fell into stasis, and very well might be proven correct if a movement to rejuvenate society out of the ideology of lockdown comes from there.
Human Freedom: The Political Battlefield of the Future?
In any event, I agree with Frank Furedi’s prediction that the politics of the future will increasingly be explicitly fought over the moral desirability of human freedom itself, after decades of the issue lurking in the background. The inherently classist nature of the bureaucratic social institutions suggests opposition to the explicitly authoritarian ideology of the ruling class and its coalition of “insiders” will come from a coalition of “outsiders”, particularly including the working class, that will adopt an explicitly libertarian ideology.
This would be a reversion to 18th and 19th century style politics, with the cult of safety, political correctness, and the bureaucracy taking the place of Christianity, traditional Western values, and the aristocracy at the right wing of politics. Conservatism as we know it, a defense of the ruling old order, traditional Western values, and Christianity, will cease to exist in any meaningful sense in this future, because its social base, the ruling and middle classes that held these values, will cease to exist.
When there is nothing left of the old order to conserve, the options become to conserve the now ruling “woke” institutions, to become a reactionary seeking a re-erection of the old order, or join the radical liberatory movement seeking the creation of a new order. We are already well into this process; it’s the very reason “right-wing” parties are, out of necessity, increasingly replacing conservatism with populism.
The degeneration of the ruling class, the complete lack of trust or confidence in their institutions by the masses that is already evident, and especially the Internet Reformation, a revolution in how man relates to his knowledge base, and thus power, that greatly empowers the individual, all strongly suggest that the opposition from outsiders, the future left wing of politics, will win.
Like the Protestant Reformation and the First Liberal Revolution, this Second Liberal Revolution may be accompanied by a technological transition, the use of the Internet (particularly the Dark Web), cryptography, and computer networks to bring into being a new social order of crypto-anarchy, a form of libertarian and individualist market anarchism, which stands conveniently ready and waiting, its basis in mathematics and technology even the ruling class depends upon making it as unstoppable as the sword Excalibur, for adoption by any radically individualist, humanistic, and liberatory social movement.
The idea that a mass movement, even one standing against the excesses of the lockdown ideology, would suddenly adopt crypto-anarchism might seem far-fetched, but consider that in the Protestant Reformation it took only nine years for the Protestant movement to go from Martin Luther’s Theses (1517) to Anabaptism becoming a mass movement (1528), a striking radicalization in so short a time. The French Revolution famously also radicalized in only a few years, as did (to a less striking extent) the American Revolution.
The intellectual wing of this movement of the future, meanwhile, may well come from Objectivism, the philosophical tradition founded by Ayn Rand, which alone among major active traditions unequivocally embraces the Western heritage along with individualism, egalitarianism, and a good strong dose of radicalism and veneration for the heroic expansion of man’s horizons, a strongly counter-cultural and intellectually rigorous philosophy ideally suited for such a movement. Objectivists have almost to a man been against lockdown. The intellectual climate might be riper than is often thought, since even among professional philosophers the broader Aristotelian tradition, of which Objectivism is a part, has been steadily gaining ground since the 1980s.
If civilization is to advance or indeed even survive at all into the future, we must embrace freedom over safety, opportunity over stability, heroism over vulnerability, courage over fear. Every great cultural change started with small cultural change; step by step in our personal lives and relationships we can put these principles into action, if we stay mindful and watchful for opportunities that come our way.