One of the unexpected consequences of the lockdown has been the extent to which we Brits have taken its central message — stay home, protect the NHS, save lives — to heart. The behavioural nudge experts got it wrong. Far from people getting lockdown fatigue, quite the opposite has happened. A majority of us have instead internalised the lockdown, as shown in two recent surveys, one covered by Dr No in his last post, and a second, commissioned by The Observer, and published over the weekend. Both consistently show that by and large people are afraid to go out. Stay home has stuck. #stayhome is now #stuckhome. If we are not careful, #stuckhome might just become #diehome.
But is this really that surprising? Blojob’s stuttering attempt at Churchillian oratory, which replaced ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ with ‘I must level with you, level with the British public, more families, many more families, are going to lose loved ones before their time,’ has as its core the simple message: ‘be afraid’. This was on 12th March, when only a handful of covid-19 deaths had been recorded, but within days the government was reporting tens and then hundreds of daily deaths. Each new higher number struck a harder blow, like a relentless slayer driving a stake through the vampire’s heart, each blow harder than the last. Hammered home as it was, fear stuck hard and fast. That fear is still there, manifest in the reluctance to venture out from home.
Invoking a common enemy and instilling fear are as it happens also early and necessary steps in establishing authoritarian regimes. All too easily a Faustian offer emerges: surrender some liberty, and the state will protect you. Indeed, it is not over-stating the position to say that this offer is the default next step, one that, unless actively resisted, will happen, as indeed it has happened. The fearful people willingly enter into the pact. The state becomes the Protector of the people, and with that position comes authoritarian power. We have already seen the exercise of those powers, in the previously unthinkable restrictions on liberty imposed on us in recent weeks.
The next default stage, which is almost inescapable, is that the promotion of the power of the state is accompanied by a promotion in the Importance of the State. At some point, often unseen, the balance tips from the state being the servant of the people to the people being the servants of the State. Though the scales may only tip through an arc of less than one degree, the shift as it happens hardly discernable, a fundamental and far reaching shift in the order of things has happened. The State has become supreme.
Now, Dr no is not here going to fall into the reductio ad Hitlerum trap opening up so clearly before him. He is however going to point out that the bizarre reversal that has seen the NHS, which until recently used to look after and protect us, is now in need of protection from us. He is not going to make the mistake of suggesting that the national Thursday racket in praise of NHS staff are thinly disguised street level Nuremberg rallies, or that the snitching neighbours who name and shame those who do not join the racket are the Gestapo in disguise. All such suggestions are of course quite preposterous.
What he is going to say is that we have travelled part of the way down a very dangerous road, and are displaying bizarre behaviours. We have made being seen to support the NHS as important as supporting the NHS. A majority of us have willingly given up liberties that until recently we considered inalienable. We have all but in name put the elderly and vulnerable — the ‘shieldees’ — under house arrest, assuredly for their own protection, but with scant regard for their own autonomy. It looks very likely a majority of us will willingly let the state monitor our movements moment by moment, assuredly anonymously, and with no judicial intent — for now.
Perhaps we need to take a step back, and ask ourselves: are these highly unusual behaviours really who we are? Are they the natural development of Magna Carta in the 21st Centrury? Or have we, without realising it, joined our Faustian pact, only to succumb to the default decline into the madness of crowds, all watched over by the monster of authoritarianism?