One of the things that has intrigued Dr No with increasing trigue during the covid pandemic has been the mechanics of how a state becomes at first authoritarian, and then totalitarian. He is not after some waffling account of putative prose impenetrable by man on ethno-hegemonic constructs pertaining to a pandemic dialectric, but rather a sort of physical mechanics, an e = mc2, or rather t = mc2, where, for instance, t = totalitarianism, m = the mob and c = something that is squared to get the answer. What he is particularly interested in is the tipping point, the point at which the gradient on the slippery slope becomes sufficient for gravity to take over, and nudges are no longer required; or, in quantum terms, the point at which we are sucked unwittingly through a putative quantum key hole all too penetrable by man into Schrödinger’s covid cage, where Geiger’s dissident counter crackles over a vial of totalitarian poison.

Any idea that Dr No could discern such a t = mc2 equation that has eluded far greater minds ever since Caligula started sawing dissidents in half in Ancient Rome is of course preposterous. No doubt Professor Here’s One I Did Earlier Ferguson would be delighted to oblige, by adapting one of his stash of computer models stored on dusty floppy disks, but by now we should have learnt that the only sure thing about Ferguson’s models is they are certain to be wrong, so we’ll leave his disks to gather more dust. We are going to have to find another way of discerning what that mysterious term c is in the equation.

You will have noticed that Dr No has quietly adopted the t = mc2 equation. It seems good enough, if we say that t is a totalitarian index, that behaves rather like the R number: if t is less than one, all will be well, if it is greater than one, we are inevitably on the road to increasing authoritarian and then totalitarian control. A t of one is our tipping point. We can leave m as the mob, perhaps as a proportion: how many of the mob need to be mobilised, to be caught up in events, to push t over one? And lastly there is the mysterious c which gets squared. Even a small amount of c can have quite a large effect. So, what is c?

Dr No suggests c is control. In particular it is social control, exercised both by the state, and on behalf of the state by collaborators. Far from being necessary or sensible control, this control is typically gratuitous control, based on flakey pseudo-science, and enforced by decree. And because the term c is squared, only a little gratuitous social control can have a surprisingly large effect, and rapidly push t over one.

We might now understand c as a concept, but we still have no way of measuring it, or even any units. Given that c is about control, especially gratuitous social control, what we are really talking about here is intrusions into private life: the extent to which the state and its collaborators intrude on the private lives of others. Instead of people enjoying a natural ability to just get on with their lives as they see fit, so long as they are not harming others, the state and its collaborators intrude. They want to know how you are, and what you are up to, and in today’s smart phone world never has it been easier to know. They decree, and enforce, a myriad of intrusions on daily life. Some intrusions might seem trivial, but that is to miss the bigger point, which is that a trivial intrusion is a hallmark of the process, done not because it needs to be done, but to show that it can be done. Necessary intrusions, based on sound principles — for example, the control that prevents you from spending your private life exploding World War II ordnance in your back yard — do not contribute to t = mc2. Rather, it is the meddling, gratuitous intrusions based on flakey pseudo-science, imposed by decree and enforced by the state and its collaborators, that contribute.

An example of a trivial intrusion might be one that prohibits a person getting a tattoo: a disappointment, for sure, but hardly more than trivial in the great scheme of things. Other gratuitous intrusions are anything but trivial, with the prohibition on meeting family and friends, with all that then follows, is perhaps the harshest and cruellest interference on private life of them all. Advice to avoid congregation does not contribute to t = mc2, because any application is voluntary. It is only when the advice turns to compulsion and control of private and family life that it becomes part of the c in t = mc2. It bears repeating that these controls are both gratuitous — there is no sound bed of evidence on which they rest — and intrusive — they are both ordered by decree, and enforceable by the dubious law that rests on that degree. And so we come to an understanding of c: it is a count of the intrusive control measures in force that interfere unreasonably in private life. It includes legal controls on congregation and face coverings and forced closures, but it also includes the socially created coercive controls: mass ‘tour city needs you’ screening, app downloading, the clap for carers police and the neighbourhood snitches and, Heaven forbid, any social coercion to get vaccinated. This last heinous catalogue of social coercions reminds us of the importance of m, the mob, and its contribution to t. For any significant move towards authoritarianism to occur, a sufficient proportion of the mob must concur.

There are of course many other factors in the rise of authoritarianism, notably the use of shock and fear to facilitate change, and the dilution of truth, but at least we now have basic tool for examining our state. Our equation t = mc2 may not be perfect in the way that Einstein’s e = mc2 is, but it does nonetheless tell us what to be on guard for. The first term, m, alerts us to watch the mood of the mob, and reminds us that when sufficient numbers collaborate with the state, then we are already well down the road to authoritarianism. The second term, c, and squared at that, reminds us that the progress towards authoritarianism depends very much on the extent to which the state interferes with and controls private life. Animal Farm, Mao’s China, Stalin’s USSR, Hitler’s Third Reich, East Germany, 1984, in each and every case one of the core engines of authoritarianism has always been the state’s wanton interference in, and control of, private life.  

It is a close call, but back here in Blighty, as 2020 draws to a close, Dr No has a gnawing suspicion that t, the totalitarian index, might already have risen above one, making the further rise of authoritarianism in Britain inevitable. Unless, that is…

This article has 11 comments

  1. Tom Welsh Reply

    “…the only sure thing about Ferguson’s models is they are certain to be wrong…”

    “Wrong” is just so inadequate a word. It reminds me of the reply Einstein is said to have given someone who offered him a half-baked thesis, “that’s not even wrong”.

    We need an adjective that is to “wrong” as “Gargantuan” is to “big”.

  2. Tom Welsh Reply

    “…how many of the mob need to be mobilised…”

    As no one else has risen to this opportunity for gratuitous pedantry, may I observe that the word “mob” derives from “mobile vulgus” – literally “the volatile plebs”.

    So maybe a mob is mobile by definition? Ex officio….

  3. Tom Welsh Reply

    “For any significant move towards authoritarianism to occur, a sufficient proportion of the mob must concur”.

    Very true. Many of the great exemplars of the past agree with you heartily.

    “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe”.

    – Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey (6 January 1816)

  4. Annie Davenport Turner Reply

    Excellent piece, Dr No. Excellent value of words to the pound, too!

    ‘…the clap for carers police and the neighbourhood snitches…’ Noted back in May, not liked, and sad to realise now that that was the start of my vivid awareness of ‘m’….

    Aldous Huxley had it sussed; ‘Considered a prominent critical intellectual of his time, Huxley was gravely concerned about the power of mass media, the potential manipulation of humans with mood-altering drugs, and the misapplication of sophisticated technology.’ As ever, we had a choice, as we do now, but here we are, just where he said: “There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method for making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak. Producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda, or brainwashing, or brainwashing by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.”

  5. Rick Reply

    I’m not sure if it is just a matter of the final confirmation that man is, broadly speaking, unable or unwilling to question, analyse and form a view beyond any narrative presented. I have, throughout my own existence, come across too few individuals who show any tenacity to question and to research a subject, to form an opinion based on something other that what they have been told.

    It confirms humans are not very clever beyond basic tool use, not willing to divide from the herd and show little or no genuine altruism. The concern they profess about saving other peoples’ granny, is a custard skin thin disguise to hide behind their own unquestioning fears or anxiety and a wish to protect themselves and their own granny only, they care not one jot about anything else and are willing to surrender everything in that cause up until it actually impacts upon them, it is at this point, all too late, that reality finally dawns.

  6. dr-no Reply

    Tom – the only way to magnify “wrong” seems to be by using a modifier – say catastrophically wrong – but of course it is always better to use a single word whenever possible. And if a mob is already mobile by definition, but with a sort of Brownian motion, then maybe “how many of the mob need to be given direction”. Dr No, by the way does enjoy your gratuitous pedantry, for there is nothing better for a writer than to be picked up on his sloppiness.

    Annie – Huxley was indeed ahead of his time, except that it has turned out that the mood altering pharmacology he foresaw has come about through the mediums of both mass and social media. it is hard to know which is worse: a lazy incompetent mass media that has defaulted itself to become little more than a part of the state propaganda machine (and Tom’s Jefferson quote applies here), or the mood altering instant hysteria available on social media.

  7. dr-no Reply

    Rick – all very true, sadly. Dr No is reminded of the clap for carers zealot who, after naming and shaming on social media those in the street who failed to clap, pops round to Tesco to elbow exhausted NHS staff out of the way.

  8. Annie Davenport Turner Reply

    Dr No – well said. Mood-altering the media sure is; a nice dollop of cortisol on the hour, every hour. Yet, in reply to you and Rick – whose words I like very much indeed, thank you – my experience is that those who are only really caring about their granny are the very ones who are ‘just going with the flow’ (a sentence which has always made me mad, but which is echoing around the planet fortissimo just now) and ‘not bothering with any of that rubbish on social media’, and saying ‘I’m just getting on with my own life; I’m ok’. An almost word-for-word conversation I had yesterday – twice!

  9. Tom Welsh Reply

    Dear Dr No, you have got the wrong end of the stick in one respect.

    “Dr No, by the way does enjoy your gratuitous pedantry, for there is nothing better for a writer than to be picked up on his sloppiness”.

    My comment was encouraged by my perception of you as literate and cultured; hence tolerant and willing to accept a rather strained witticism.

    Far from “sloppy”, I see you as one of the most articulate and precise writers whose work I enjoy. As Bertrand Russell remarked, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”.

  10. dr-no Reply

    Tom – you are very kind, thanks.

    There might have been the tiniest hint of self-deprecation in Dr No’s remark, but the general point remains that honest writers can always benefit from honest criticism, notwithstanding every writer should of course always be his or her own sternest critic.

  11. dr-no Reply

    And very much in the spirit of what I have just said, the last bit should be “notwithstanding every aspiring writer should of course always be his or her own sternest critic.”

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