Why woke leftists love the lockdown

Where the left once stood up to the power of the state, it now embraces it.

Jacob Williams

Topics Politics UK

In one sense, it feels as if freedom in the West is constantly expanding, from the liberalism of the 1960s to the ‘great awokening’ of the past decade, in which even our freedom to choose and express an identity has dramatically expanded.

Yet, as the global response to the pandemic has shown, we have simultaneously been content to see entire nations placed under collective house arrest. Moreover, it has been remarkable just how few people have questioned the lockdown’s suppression of freedom, with most criticism of, for example, the UK government’s response to the pandemic coming from those who would see the lockdown extended. Indeed, when UK prime minister Boris Johnson recovered from Covid-19 in April, he tellingly quoted Cicero’s salus populi suprema lex esto (‘the health of the people should be the supreme law’), a maxim that nowhere mentions the rights of the individual.

How should we explain this paradox? Our culture treats some freedoms, like the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities, as sacrosanct and unquestionable. Yet it treats others, like the freedom to visit family or have a drink at the pub, as conditional, liable for revocation whenever the state decides that the supreme law of public health requires it.

But on what grounds does the supreme law of public health require it? In 1968-9, the Hong Kong flu killed around one to four million people worldwide, which is several times the number of deaths Covid-19 has so far caused. Yet workplaces remained open, there was no state-ordered social distancing, and children continued to go to school. Perhaps people were simply more used to, and therefore less fearful of, death. After all, global life expectancy was 15 years lower than it is today. But this raises the question as to why India, whose life expectancy is lower today than the UK’s was in the 1960s, has still imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns on a populace too poor to cope under it without mass suffering.

Perhaps this paradox is to be explained by the fact freedom no longer means what it once did. A century ago, most Brits would have identified freedom, or better still liberty, with procedural constraints on state power, like habeas corpus and the right to trial by jury. Freedom was a ‘negative’ concept, identifying what the state could not do to the subject. It was also – oddly – linked to self-denial. That is, if individuals lacked self-discipline, it was believed that the state would have to step in to repair the resulting social chaos.

We have since extended the envelope of liberty to benefit marginalised groups, but this has involved redefining liberty. First, the 1960s cultural upheaval identified social attitudes (and the majority who held them), alongside state action, as a potential cause of unfreedom. To be free, then, individuals were encouraged to liberate themselves from the traditional values of faith, flag and family. At the same time, the key to the good life changed. Individuals were no longer to discipline themselves, and control their desires, in order to be free. Instead, they were implored to give in to and fulfill their desires, a reversal most evident in the changing attitudes to sexuality. Together, these changes meant that freedom could be identified with the freedom to satisfy one’s desires.

The second wave of change was linked to the ‘great awokening’ of the past decade – although this began with the rise of political correctness in the 1980s and 1990s. The great awokening preserves and intensifies the 1960s countercultural belief that the truest freedom lies in expressing one’s authentic self-identity. It then identifies individual actions, such as offensive speech, as the bases of the oppressive social attitudes that constrain this authentic self-expression. Leftish woke thinking reifies these social attitudes as ‘structures’, giving them names like ‘white supremacy’ and ‘patriarchy’.

Moreover, the woke left not only sees these oppressive structures everywhere, it also discerns them embedded in traditional procedural constraints on the power of the state. The presumption of innocence for rape suspects, for example, is derided as patriarchal privileging of the structurally more powerful male defendent’s testimony. Limits on state power are therefore grasped as a potential problem for today’s liberal-left, and traditional liberties, like free speech, are seen as a license to oppress others.

The lockdown is the natural consequence of this new concept of liberty. We are now much less likely to see the state as a threat to our freedom, than we are the attitudes of our fellow citizens.

That marks quite a shift. Seen through the older prism of freedom, a state policy, such as the lockdown, would not be embraced. It would be seen as an unprecedented infringement on our liberty. Indeed, the countless deaths caused by lockdown could even be conceived as state manslaughter. The threat of the state behaving in this way would outweigh, morally and politically, the threat posed by a new virus. A pandemic would still be treated with the utmost seriousness, but we would rely more on Swedish-style voluntary precautions, rather than attempt to use the state to minimise mortality at all costs.

Such an approach seems difficult to imagine in the UK today. Instead of ‘give me liberty, or give me death!’, too many now ask the state to ‘give me liberty from death – and from nasty words and microaggressions too!’

The liberal logic of lockdown is clear: if the good life is the gratified one, and the state is the means to protect us from others’ attitudes, why shouldn’t Boris lock us down⁠, or lock us up, in order to protect our health? The only coherent answer is that some freedoms, such as democratic assembly or free speech, are of a higher order than others. Most of us may no longer believe that liberty is the supreme law. But those who do have a duty to speak out.

Jacob Williams is a postgraduate student, writer, and former editor of No Offence, living in London

Picture by: Getty.

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Barry O’Barmy

14th July 2020 at 4:24 pm

Jacob, if the death rate were proven to be 100% of those infected, I feel sure you would approve of “lockdown” as “a good thing”. If it were 75%, I suspect you would think the same.
We do not know the exact percentage of those dying from Covid-19, but it is certainly much higher in my age Group (78+) than yours (postgrad student) and I have therefore been isolating myself for a month longer than the government’s imposed lockdown, as if I catch this virus, I am likely to die..
Your attitude will change completely when the latest swine ‘flu arrives from China—be patient,it won’t be long……

James Knight

14th July 2020 at 12:54 pm

Have you not heard? The BLM protests in the US actually reduced the spread of covid19. This is the line of expert academics.

Educate yourself!

Mor Vir

14th July 2020 at 12:39 pm

Wow, the economy has ‘bounced right back’ – right back 1.8% after dropping 25%. I bet that Boris wishes that he had shut the borders now. Hate to think what a second wave this winter will do, they are saying that 120,000 may die in UK. Scotland needs to shut its own border come winter, likewise Ireland and Wales.

Global debt is now over 100% of global GDP and interest rates remain at/ near zero. They are basically printing money at this point – distributing ‘helicopter money’, basically chucking it out of helicopters. Mass defaults cannot be far off.

> Unemployment at 4MILLION in a year, GDP to take FIVE YEARS to recover and the biggest peacetime deficit EVER: Budget watchdog’s dire predictions as it warns Brits face years of tax rises and spending cuts to pay of £2TRILLION covid bill – DM

Gareth Edward KING

14th July 2020 at 10:47 am

Once the state interferes in concepts which are related to the personal sphere such as ‘safe sex’ or one’s personal ‘vices’ such as smoking, then ‘it’s for our own good’ becomes the excuse in terms of this overblown response to Covid-19. Where will it end? It doesn’t seem to be enough that the ‘science’ behind ‘social distancing’ and ‘death masks’ is, at best, highly dubious, but people follow will meekly in any case. As the comments here suggest, these authoritarian measures coincided with the end of the Cold War (1989). I distinctly remember 1992 in London as being the time when ‘safe sex’ was taken on board and when the Terence Higgings Trust worked hand-in-hand with London Local Authorities, and this was after the furore on the late 1980s Local Government Act on the ‘teaching of homosexuality’ in schools. The Left then was unable to connect with the idea that the State should steer well clear of the bedroom. Those 1988 leaflets on AIDS being posted to all households by Thatcher’s government; you could see then that the Tories were not happy in dealing with those ‘whirling in a cesspit of their own making’ (mis-quote from Manchester Chief Police’s comments), but look how far they’ve come? For all of the main parties’ apparent ‘distaste’ with delving into the private sphere, they’ve come out of it tops! Now, we’re expected to put on useless, unaesthetic ‘face wad’ for shopping only, of course!
In most of Spain their use is obligatory-shopping or no shopping-but then the country only came out of a dictatorship (a real one, not an apparent one) in June 1977. Between the Spanish political parties it’s a game of who can be the most authoritarian. In Sunday’s local elections in both Galicia and the Basque; the PP conservatives won with the identitarian separatists a close second in both regions, but only because the PSOE and UP (both ‘woke left’) are currently in power. ‘Far right’ Vox actually won a seat in the Basque (Álava), good luck to them.


14th July 2020 at 3:52 pm

Gareth, I recall that nearly 50 years ago I read Local Anaesthetic by Gunter Grass. It’s really some sort of internal dialogue. But as I recollect the second character, the dentist, expresses the hope that in the future society will be governed by some sort of omnipotent public health body, which will care for everybody from the cradle to the grave. Grass, of course, was trying to come to terms with the way that the German people fell under the thrall of Nazism, and I don’t think that the dentist’s views were intended as anything but a counterpoint to the politico-moral wranglings of the main character in his chair. As you suggest there is something chillingly authoritarian about laws that are justified on the grounds of protecting people from the consequences of their own actions. Come to that, I believe both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks claimed that they were seeking to ‘heal’ society.

christopher barnard

14th July 2020 at 10:06 am

One reason the left admire state power is because many of them are employed by the state and they’ll get to exercise that power.


14th July 2020 at 6:54 am

‘In one sense, it feels as if freedom in the West is constantly expanding, from the liberalism of the 1960s to the ‘great awokening’ of the past decade, in which even our freedom to choose and express an identity has dramatically expanded.’

Speaking as one who was born in the mid-1950s I have – justifiably or otherwise – felt that my personal liberty has been in decline at least since the turn of the century. Contemporaries who I’ve discussed this with agree that any sense of freedom and tolerance peaked in the early 1990s, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As one who is interested in historical trends, I can’t help but suspect that that is no coincidence. It may just be that we felt ‘freer’ because we knew that not far away others were anything but free.

The other thing that comes across powerfully is attitudes to race and skin colour. In the 1960s there was widespread racial prejudice in the UK. It was slowly dissipating in the 1970s and 1980s, to the point that – certainly in the mainly ‘white’ working and middle class circles that I’ve always mixed in – it seemed to have more or less disappeared by the mid 1990s. The murder of Stephen Lawrence shocked me, not because a young man was murdered in the street, but because the perpetrators apparently picked him out for his skin colour.

The long term result of Stephen Lawrence’s murder has been a disaster. Instead of accepting that there are – and doubtless always will be – some social retards who should be ostracised by all decent people, and that thankfully one particular class of them was in decline, the ‘authorities’ decided that it was time to make ‘wrong think’ illegal. That has emboldened the huge numbers of a different kind of social retards, those who believe that society cannot be trusted to police itself, and that it is their job to do the policing.

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