Jordan is the host of The Peaceful Way Podcast, in which he explores the concepts, ideas, and strategies behind making a more peaceful and nonviolent world.
The uncomfortable truth about authoritarian regimes is that they come into power primarily through the expressed permission, or general apathy, of the population which they rule. It is always after the fact, after the ethnocides, secret police, show trials, and rigged elections that the public realizes the monster it has participated in creating. The pretence under which the citizens accept the dictator is primarily an irrational fear of some sort of perceived existential threat, coupled with scapegoating of a smaller segment of the population, or even a single individual. In Pol Pot’s Cambodia for example, influenced by a monolithic Buddhist culture, peasants often had a very blase attitude towards human death and suffering, attributing torture, starvation, and displacement to bad Karma from a previous life, making it taboo to even intervene. In the early years of the cultural revolution, Mao Zhedong was able to galvanize poor farmers to publicly torture, execute, and even cannibalize slightly less-poor farmers for the sin of being wealthier than themselves, under the auspices of being “capitalists” and “robbing them of their wealth”. Power lusting tyrants love nothing more than to feast on people’s fears, while portraying themselves as messianic figures ordained for “such a time as this”. The tyrant himself, however, can hardly be held entirely responsible, without the explicit support of the masses, police departments, military, academia, and even mass media. Without these, a dictator is simply a boat without a rudder. It is the dark marriage with the passions of the common man and his ruler which makes totalitarianism unconscionably vicious.
In the age of COVID-19, these dynamics are no less relevant. As governments around the world reel over the best response to the latest global pandemic, there has been a disturbing trend of trampling on rights, eliminating personal choice, invading privacy and blithely dismissing constitutional protections in the name of hypothetical and momentary safety. When and how our freedoms might be restored is a complete afterthought, there are no targets, thresholds, or circumstances, short of entirely eradicating the virus (a literal impossibility), in which our “benevolent” overlords might afford us a refund of our liberties. The utterly depressing aspect of the situation we find ourselves in, is that in the majority of cases, these governments enjoy massive levels of public and institutional support. Be it Jacinda Arderns historic re-election in New Zealand for her downright fascistic response to the novel coronavirus, Governor Andrew Cuomo receiving an Emmy award for all but a total shut down of the state of New York, or the World Health Organizations gushing over China’s inhumane and deadly measures it imposed on it’s own citizenry. In Canada, approval ratings have sky rocketed for premiers who behave in the most draconian of manners, while a more hands off approach like that of Alberta’s premier, Jason Kenney, get punished in the polls. It is clear that it is not only the government’s themselves, though they deserve plenty of blame, but the population at large. Your neighbours are encouraged to call the police on nonviolent people for the cardinal sin of having a gathering in their own home, perhaps you will be stopped by a moral busy body while shopping if you are not wearing mask, or it could be throngs of fanatical zealots belonging to the lockdown religion who will bully and harass you on social media for any perceived impropriety which violates their puritanical dogmas. In the ushering in of our new dystopian future, the government hardly has to lift a finger, its people are more than willing to do its dirty work.
“Dictatorship Naturally arises out of democracy” — Plato
What distinguishes the current species of authoritarianism from previous iterations is that it operates under the auspices of public health, as the enemy is not a racial or social class, but rather a virus. Its thought leaders are not radical activists or military generals, it is doctors and scientists. In this materialist era, slogans like “believe the science” are brandied about with reckless abandon, giving any unelected public health official a blank check to thrust their top down, command and control style economic fantasies upon the rest of us without our consent. And now, almost anyone can utter the words “I am following the science” as if it were a magical totem used to ward off any and all skepticism of a particular policy proposal in response to the pandemic. Prior to the entrance of COVID-19 onto the global stage, politicians would often give homage to “the scientists” in reference to all sorts of topics. Be it the environment, pharmaceuticals, or conservation, we have seen a disturbing trend to more heavily rely on “experts” to drive public policy with almost no reference to a cost benefit analysis of said policies, or any type of examination of the unintended consequences or ethical implications. Thanks to the coronavirus, we have now reached a tipping point where the populace is more or less begging for a technocracy to be instituted with complete and unrestrained power.
The dismal part of all of this, is that science, its institutions and its academics, have become so politicized and tribal within the cultural zeitgeist that it more resembles a fundamentalist cult than a beautiful process of inquiry, experimentation, and observation. Science is not a “thing”, it is a process. It is not a noun, it is a verb. It is what we do when we explore the world around us, follow our curiosities, innovate, and turn imaginary futures into concrete realities. The scientific method has given us the cure to so many ails, improved our productivity one thousand fold, and given even the poorest among us the ability to live as royalty of a bygone age. But somewhere along the way, science, or more accurately “pop-science”, became not an honest intellectual pursuit, but rather, a political bludgeon to cast out heretics and naysayers. Rather than having every past conclusion be open to scrutiny and falsifiability, political scientism has become a holy writ in which even the slightest deviation from the “consensus” orthodoxy is punishable by public shaming and banishment from polite society. Public health officials have been christened as oracles, and only they have the ability to correctly read and interpret the scientific literature. We, the ignorant peasants, must passively accept their edicts as gospel, without question.
One may argue that the repressions we live under are temporary and only because of extraordinary circumstances, I beg to differ. There is almost no instance in history wherein a government or bureaucracy completely surrendered its powers after a crisis abated, barring the old regime being disposed. The US military, for example, still occupies Germany and Japan despite those countries posing no threat whatever. Canada introduced the income tax to pay for World War One and promised to abolish it after the war. Nations around the world have continued to outlaw the development of nuclear energy out of a Cold War hangover, despite its ability to realistically address carbon emissions. This is not necessarily because of any malicious intent (though there is certainly enough of that to go around) but rather powerful bureaucratic inertia that is naturally associated with very large institutions.
Detractors may believe I am over exaggerating, and they may be right. To this point there have been no firing squads on political dissidents, no liquidations of entire people groups, or any sort of weaponized hunger. But as for me, I prefer to observe the lessons of history, and not allow it to get to that point.