Spanish – “The pre-COVID-19 order isn’t coming back, ‘for the former things are passed away.’ Even if a vaccine or a cure is discovered tomorrow, we won’t pick up where we left off. The world that lies beyond the lockdown is an altogether colder, harsher, and more authoritarian place,” With these words, the British politician and journalist Dan Hannan began his October 26 article in the Washington Examiner, titled COVID-19 is destroying global freedom.
Pandemics, there were many…
Quoting Maristella Svampa, “There were many pandemics in history, starting with the Black Death in the Middle Ages. More recently, everyone evokes the Spanish flu (1918-1919), Asian flu (1957), Hong Kong flu (1968), HIV/AIDS (since the 1980s), swine flu AH1N1 (2009), SARS (2002), Ebola (2014), MERS (coronavirus, 2015) and now COVID-19. However, we never lived in a global quarantine state; we never thought that the establishment of a transitional state of emergency, a sanitary Leviathan, would be so fast through the nation-states.”
Julio Montero says about the “state of exception”: “Originally coined by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt to theoretically bury the Weimar Republic, this philosophical category is equally acclaimed by authoritarians on the left and the right. The notion alludes to the power of the “sovereign” to suspend constitutional guarantees to create a new legal, political, and moral regime. The task of “normalization” is carried out through a radical “frenemy” confrontation- a colossal symbolic mobilization that ends up turning unruly into a threat to the nation.”
It is not risky to conjecture that many leaders will surely continue to cling to these new powers that have been hastily and thoughtlessly conferred upon them. Now they have the perfect pretext for persecuting, tormenting, and neutralizing their eventual opponents.
This is already happening in Thailand in Asia, or Hungary and Poland in Eastern Europe, where governments have clearly used the pandemic to increase their power. And this is so apparent that a neologism has even been generated to characterize such a regime: covidocracy.
Another case worth noting is that of the Philippines, where Rodrigo Duterte enabled security forces to shoot civilians who violated quarantine. “Instead of causing trouble, I will bury you,” Duterte threatened on the same day that a score of people in Manila dared to protest without police permission.
As Javier Martínez Mendoza concludes, “the pandemic has allowed these types of rulers to justify the prohibition of protests against their governments, as is the case with Russia and Algeria, in addition to the harassment of minorities such as the Uighurs in China or the Muslims in India.”
Psychological profile of the authoritarian
The scientific studies on authoritarianism have their origin in the German history of the 1930s, when a whole cohort of psychologists struggled to understand what mental processes underlay the attraction aroused by Hitler.
Of course, such research has continued since then, and among the most recent are a couple of studies conducted and published just a few months ago by Professors Thomas H. Costello and Shauna M. Bowes of Emory University’s Department of Psychology.
In these academic texts, we first examine to what extent fanaticisms from both the left and the right share a whole constellation of traits that constitute the “authoritarian heart”: a preference for uniformity and docility, prejudicial, discriminatory, and even aggressive attitudes toward what is different, group pressure to align behaviors by limiting free expression, harsh reactions to what is perceived as threatening, obedience to “authority” figures, dogmatism, cognitive rigidity, and absolutism in the regulation of moral behavior.
And if there is one more feature to add to the list, “hatred.” As the once-iconic activist Mark Rudd later acknowledged, this was in connection with his involvement in the leftist movement known as the Weather Underground in the 1960s and 1970s. “I admitted this terrible insane logic. Not only was I willing to take the risks and suffer the consequences, but more importantly, I was overwhelmed by hate. I cherished my hatred as a badge of moral superiority.”
Joseph Manson, from the University of California’s Department of Anthropology, then went on to study “left-wing and right-wing authoritarianism” in attitudes on both sides of the pandemic mitigation measures.
And to sum up, his research yielded a disturbing, if hopeful, result: Both participants strongly affiliated with a “leftist” ideology and those subscribing to an equally strong “right-wing” ideology showed strong support for measures of absolute authoritarianism. Among them, the prohibition of activities considered “non-essential,” the police denunciation of possible offenders, the acceptance of legislation dictated by executive decrees, the implementation of aggravated punishment, powers of detention, the supervision by “mandatory” implementation of computer applications for tracking and tracing, mandatory testing, the issuance of certificates of immunity, and the suppression of the right to protest. It seems that the disagreements between the two sides were located only in totally “extra-pandemic” topics such as immigration and abortion. However, for everything else, their affinities with these authoritarian measures were absolute.
Clearly, and as an almost visceral reaction to what was perceived as an imminent and lethal health threat, many citizens tolerated and even demanded government measures that they would have rejected as unacceptable under normal conditions.
And that perception of the world as an essentially dangerous place, fostered in large part by the mainstream media, unfortunately, led much of the population to change their preferences and their spirit of freedom for what we know today was only a fantasy: to have the security and tranquility that would magically emanate from the loving provisions of a paternalistic state that would “take care of them.”
On the contrary, and as Manuel Castells pointed out with almost surgical precision: “the economy continues in free fall, unemployment increases to levels that can hardly be sustained by unemployment insurance, borders are closed, aggressiveness among people increases, xenophobia is widespread, the transition to teleworking and virtual education occurs in confusion, while social media is replete with apocalyptic myths and conspiracy theories … a rampant nationalism threatens dangerous confrontations between states and the suppression of dissent under the pretext of insecurity. Moreover, the necessary sanitary precautions of restriction of mobility and surveillance of social contacts as the main ways to prevent the spread of the virus have already introduced extreme limitations to the freedoms that feed the ever-present temptation in states of pure and hard authoritarianism to maintain order.”
The mental change
Returning to Dan Hannan’s article, perhaps the most problematic aspect of the whole issue is that kind of “alteration of our brain chemistry” that has made us, in his own words, more tribal, more hostile. An alteration that will not be easy to reverse. Moreover, as a historical example, this author comments on the extent to which, after World War II, many British voters continued to adhere to food rations, ID cards, a controlled economy, or military conscription, all elements that had supposedly been implemented temporarily during the war.
And he concludes, “As we haul ourselves out of the pupa of lockdown, we will find that we have metamorphosed. Free inquiry, open competition, small government, the elevation of the individual over the collective — all these things, which used to be understood, even if grudgingly, as the basis of an open society, are being decried on all sides as somehow self-indulgent… Now, people in every country are rejecting the individualistic assumptions that guaranteed their freedom and their prosperity. Once those assumptions have been junked, they won’t easily come back… Our liberal order will soon be choked by creepers like some ancient Mayan ruin, swallowed up in the spray of green.”
Faced with this gloomy panorama, then, we ask ourselves: isn’t it time to reformulate the terms of the debate? What if, instead of debating between “left and right,” we debate between authoritarianism and freedom?
(1) Quoted by Greg Jemsek in Quiet Horizon: Releasing Ideology and Embracing Self-Knowledge