The back of a fag packet account of the rise of a totalitarian state goes something like this. First, atomise a preferably already disenfranchised people, then fill the void with a spell binding myth that is at the same time under constant threat from a deadly enemy that must be eliminated, whatever the cost. These steps achieved, the tyrant can walk though an already open door. The ancillaries of totalitarianism — the eradication of free thought and spontaneity to be replaced by the normalisation of uncritical uniformity, the apparatuses of decree, surveillance, propaganda and terror, and the unswerving adulation of the supreme leader — can then all click into place, like a latch in a door frame. The alibi for these hideous intrusions is, as Camus noted, the welfare of the people, and the people, as Franklin noted, willingly trade in essential liberty to gain temporary safety, each and every one hoping, as Churchill noted, that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.
Yes, Dr No knows he, like countless others, has quoted Franklin out of context, but the out of context quote also contains it’s own universal truth. What we see in the Camus / Franklin / Churchill progression is the tyrant’s1 seemingly benign offer of welfare, for which the people willingly trade in essential liberty, only to later find themselves at the mercy of the tyrant turned crocodile. But in the preliminary stages of a tyranny, the people willingly enter into the pact, failing to see its true nature. It is only later, when the crocodile shows its teeth, that they, and even then it is not all, realise that they have foolishly entered into the most dangerous of pacts.
We British, of course, are comfortable in the certainty that of all the peoples of the world, we should be the last to find ourselves subject to totalitarian rule. Britons never never shall be slaves, and all that. But as we have just noted, no people feels itself forced, in the early stages, into totalitarianism. Instead, there is a willing, voluntary typically Franklinian pact, which once entered into becomes impossible to break, and which then allows, over time totalitarianism to emerge. The road to hell starts not in a dimly lit subterranean passage, but in an open field, where the dark ley lines that will lead to hell are quite invisible. Not even a compass can tell us we are walking to danger.
Instead, to guard against accidental descent into totalitarianism, we need to look for the antecedents, and what we find is that even today, too many for comfort are already in place. The atomisation of the people, by which Dr No means the disruption of the normal molecular cohesion of society, is already well under way, thanks to social distancing and shielding. The spell binding myth and supreme leader are perhaps absent, though some might allow the sunlit uplands of Brexit to stand in for the former, even if none will allow BoJo’s stuttering clockwork Churchill Mark Two to stand in for the other. The deadly enemy, which must be eliminated, whatever the cost, is very present, in covid–19. We can even see that some of the ancillaries of tyranny are already in place: world-beating propaganda, government by decree, behavioural surveillance, not just by the Police, but by citizen on citizen as well, the uncritical adoption of dogma, ranging from all deaths with covid–19 are deaths from covid–19, through the lockdown fantasy, to the adoption of facemasks, and the ugly rise of the hideous facemask brownshirts abusing and policing facemask miscreants. All these things, unthinkable a year ago, have been brought in on the alibi of necessary measures for public health, have been willingly adopted by a majority of the British people.
Essential liberty traded in for temporary safety. Franklin would have it that those who would make such a trade deserve neither. Dr No might sometimes be inclined to agree, but that achieves nothing. Instead, Dr No offers this humble post, and the stark warning that it contains.
Footnote: (1) Like Churchill, Dr No uses totalitarianism and tyranny as loosely interchangeable terms, chiefly for operational reasons, because there is no totalitarian rooted word for tyrant. Instead, there are clumsy mouthfuls like totalitarian leader (eight gob-stopping syllables instead of two short punches). Camus was most likely also on the same hymn sheet — ‘Le bien-être du peuple en particulier a toujours été l’alibi des tyrans’ works much better than ‘Le bien-être du peuple en particulier a toujours été l’alibi des dirigeants totalitaires’.