Social scientist Matthew Goodwin has warned that the coronavirus pandemic, and the lockdown measures taken in response, are set to radically alter the relationship between citizen and state. In a
summary of his latest research, Goodwin says:
‘Through this crisis and the one before it, many people have watched the state come to the rescue on two occasions in little over a decade. The end result may be a broader public acceptance of larger and more interventionist governments and a willingness to experiment in state-led instruments, particularly among younger generations that have no real memory of the pre-2008 era. Economic liberals and free marketeers will be on the back foot and will once again have to restate their case to younger generations that will have no memory of their creed.’
What Goodwin seems to gloss over here is the impact that this ‘reshaping’ of the citizen-state relationship will have on civil liberties.
In a recent post written for Toby Young’s brilliant site, lockdownsceptics.org, the historian of totalitarianism Guy de la Bédoyère has warned that the frenzy and sloganeering around the UK’s lockdown makes for some worrying comparisons with the formation of previous totalitarian states. De la Bédoyère acknowledges that Boris Johnson’s recent statements point to a loosening of the state’s grip on our lives, but that the economic fallout from the lockdown may still end up being the seedbed of more interventions in the future.
Now that the government has a precedent, and the people have shown themselves willing to accept a cancellation of their rights in the face of threats to security, we ought to be very worried, warns de la Bédoyère, about the integrity of our civil liberties.
‘We really are at a fork in the road. In one direction lies the complete end of everything we have ever held dear and a life literally not worth living, a mere spectral existence in a paralyzed and terrified surveillance state of agoraphobics queuing up like mendicant friars for government handouts. In the other lies some sort of chance to learn to live with the virus crisis and use self-determination to overcome it within the context of all the other challenges we face.
‘For Boris Johnson the prospect is simple. He either becomes an undisguised totalitarian and goes the way of all such leaders, or he uses his consummate political skills to worm his and our way out of this mess while leaving his critics floundering in his wake.’
The relationship between the state and the citizen is a sacred one formed over hundreds of years,
based on the development of individual liberty from the Magna Carta right down to the present day. Personal liberty has been shown to be preferable to a society in which the state is an annoying caretaker, not simply because it allows greater choice, entrepreneurship and free expression, but because it helps to create a more secure form of legitimacy in the long run.
Totalitarian regimes may appear to be secure and uncompromising in the short term, but as we can
see from ancient and recent history, such states are prone to volatile tyrannies and violent coups.
The reality of living under such regimes is that the citizen is never valued intrinsically but only as some utilitarian cog in the wheel. Their duty is not simply to serve the collective, but to completely surrender to it, and thus they must cancel out the very thing which marks human beings out from the rest of nature: their rational agency, or reason.
The liberal tradition as it comes down to us via John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill arguably starts with Aristotle, who said that ‘man is a political animal,’ and can only truly find flourishing in association with other rational human beings. The point here is that we form states not just for security, and not just from some animal instinct to survive in packs, but because our very nature means that we reach our potential in a state of shared investment in each other’s ability to choose and to think for ourselves.
It is of course very common for critics of this tradition to point out that Aristotle recommend citizenship for a high class of privileged males, excluded women and argued that some people are essentially determined to be slaves.
However, the idea that the state is a product of a fundamental capacity for reason and self-determined flourishing starts with Aristotle and it remains the guiding intuition behind modern liberalism. All that has changed is that today we seek to extend this natural capacity for reason and self-determination to all human beings.
The defenders of the lockdown, and those who seem complacent in the face of what it might mean
for the future of British citizenship, betray a dangerous glibness about the implications these unprecedented restrictions will have for the guiding, unspoken assumptions that might inform the future of our politics.
It all comes down to human nature. If you believe in the lockdowns, and are suspicious of those who question them, then you probably have a low opinion of your fellow citizen. Citizenship for you is a matter of enforced duties carried out as payback for the warm, engulfing security of the daddy state. If, however, you smart at the shocking overreach of police powers and the irritating tone of condescension in the daily government updates, you most likely still cling to the increasingly unfashionable view that the state is there in service of individual flourishing, not the other way round.
If Matthew Goodwin is correct, then what is at stake for British citizens is far more than a temporary loss of convenience and consumer freedom. We are at a dangerous crisis-point in our civic history. We are on the verge of damaging irrevocably our constitutional tradition of the previous 1,000 years, but even more worrying we are about discard more than 2,000 years of philosophical thinking on what it means to be a citizen, how to live in a free society and ultimately, what it means to be a human being.
Let us hope that we do not sacrifice the most ambitious and emancipating ideas of human potential
for the sake of media-induced panic and a scramble for empty promises of security.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.