The hibernation of democracy
A year of lockdown has had dire consequences for liberty and public life.
For a year we have been living through one of the most extraordinary events of modern times: the hibernation of democracy. The suspension of public life. The adjournment of politics itself. This has been the most dire consequence of lockdown. We have witnessed the outsourcing of decision-making to non-political actors, the withering away of political opposition and political debate, and the decommissioning of the public itself. Stay at home, watch the news for Covid updates, and don’t breathe on, far less talk to, another human soul. That has been the instruction to the demos for the past year. The impact of all of this on the spirit and practice of democracy is likely to be long-lasting.
Today is the first anniversary of the imposition of lockdown in the UK. It was a year ago today that Boris Johnson, having initially bristled at the idea of enforcing a China- or Italy-style shutdown of society, solemnly addressed the nation and said: ‘Stay at home.’ It would last three or four weeks, we were told. It was just about ‘flattening the curve’ and preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed. We’d be out of it soon and cracking on with life relatively normally. How naive we were to believe that. Today, on this unhappy birthday, we’re in lockdown again – our third – and public-health experts are telling us that some social restrictions could last for years. A three-week shutdown has become a neverending nightmare.
How did this happen? It is not, as some people insist, a conspiracy. Government officials did not plot this severe suspension of our freedoms. They aren’t rubbing their hands with glee at having finally made the masses docile and made themselves all-powerful (although it is certainly the case that bureaucratic opportunists have spied in this crisis a chance to push their pet nanny-state causes, whether it’s on obesity, the evils of boozing in pubs or the ‘annoyance’ of political protests). And nor is lockdown the handiwork of Big Pharma or dastardly corporations desperate to inject their drugs (and microchips?) into the lab rats of humanity. These attempts to uncover the plot behind our predicament can end up confusing the issue and in some cases can stir up conspiratorial thinking.
No, the far more unsettling truth behind the past year of suspended democracy and suspended liberty is that no one has really been in the driving seat. Rather, the Covid-19 crisis, the arrival of this new, threatening virus, merged with the pre-existing trends of fear, apocalypticism and doubt in the wisdom of ordinary people to create a reaction to the virus that was unhelpful in the extreme. Rather than coolly analyse Covid’s likely impact, the elites depicted it as a threat to everybody. Rather than galvanise the public in a mass national effort to keep the vulnerable safe and to keep the economy and society moving, the elites decommissioned the public, forced us into house arrest, and insisted our role was to be passive, atomised and compliant. Rather than ensuring that democratic debate could continue, and flourish, in this era when unprecedented political proposals were being made, the elites put politics into cryonic suspension. When we needed the political freedom of discussion and dissent more than we have at any time in living memory, it was taken from us.
All of these things were a product not of Covid itself, which is just a virus, or of some carefully drawn-up plan by scheming politicians, most of whom couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, but rather of the pre-Covid cultures of fear and illiberalism. Of the contemporary tendency for viewing every crisis as an apocalypse. Of the trend for sacralising safety – from risk, sickness, even from other people’s ‘offensive’ words – over everything else. Of the cavalier way in which freedom of dissent is treated as a negotiable commodity, and in which democracy is paid lip-service to but not treated as a serious thing, not understood as the best way of making decisions and shaping the future. Covid’s grim arrival mashed with these regressive trends to give rise to the most flagrant and sustained moratorium on freedom and democracy that any living person in the UK can remember.
Democracy was forced into hibernation – an utterly unprecedented state of affairs. Our nation and our lives became the property not of an engaged, free public discussion, but of an expert class of scientists and public-health officials to whom every major decision was entrusted. Parliament temporarily suspended itself. Even when it returned it failed to subject the suspension of public life to any real, meaningful scrutiny. Every other issue other than Covid-19 was forced out of the public realm. Even discussing the economic and social consequences of lockdown was shamed into silence. ‘Do you care more for the economy than for your own grandmother?!’ And we the people were transformed from democratic citizens into recipients of instruction; from free public actors into potential spreaders of disease to be controlled and punished; from voters into mere observers of the spectacle of crisis, our role nothing more than to watch the depressing daily press conferences and heed their warning that leaving our houses would cause death and destruction.
The impact of the hibernation of democracy has been appalling. The right of ordinary people to discuss and decide the best way to deal with threats to society has been damaged possibly beyond repair. The freedom to organise politically and to hold our rulers to account was throttled, and could remain throttled – witness the government’s desire to extend the past year’s ban on public protests via new laws that would severely restrict our right to gather in public. And the corrective of common sense, of the wisdom of the crowd, has not had any influence at all on the Covid crisis. It is this more than anything else, this suspension of the rational, steadying influence of the masses, that has allowed the cut-off, jaundiced elites to behave in an increasingly regressive fashion and which has allowed conspiratorial thinking to spread unchecked.
We have witnessed what happens when democracy is suspended. Fear intensifies, passivity takes hold, liberty falls apart in an unchecked way, the political class behaves in a rash fashion, and a cloud of doom descends on the country as more people start to wonder: ‘What is happening? When will it end?’ One of the most frustrating things for those of us who have expressed dissent about the hibernation of democracy is that we are accused of wanting to let Covid rip through the population. We just don’t care. Nonsense. Many of us recognised the need for restrictions, for changes to daily behaviour during spikes of this menacing virus. But what we have argued is that killing democracy in order to combat a virus is a ‘cure’ that is far worse than the disease. Its impact will last far longer than Covid’s.
In times of crisis, democracy and liberty become more important, not less. To suspend public life in response to a public threat is to send the message that democracy is only for normal times. That democracy is a luxury for good times only. When the going gets tough, when life gets hard, democracy must be put on hold and the little people should stay home and shut the hell up. Leave everything to the experts, to the people who are cleverer than you. This was the worst response imaginable to Covid-19. We need so many reckonings with the past year. The key reckoning must be with the foul idea that ordinary people have nothing of value to say or contribute in a time of crisis; that democracy is a mere veneer that can occasionally be scrubbed away, rather than the lifeblood of any society that truly wants to remain rational, free and good.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
Picture by: Getty.
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