Alastair Crooke for Strategic Culture
Just occasionally, a window is opened onto the truth of how the ‘system’ works. Momentarily, it stands naked in its degeneracy. We avert our eyes, yet, it is a revelation (though it shouldn’t be). For, we see clearly how tawdry has been the attire which clothed it. ‘Liberalism’s’ seeming success – almost wholly an ephemeral PR production – serves only to make its underlying internal contradictions more obvious; more ‘in your face’ – much less credible.
This unravelling speaks to a failure to satisfactorily resolve liberal modernity’s inherent contradictions. Or, rather its unravelling derives from the choice to resolve a waning legitimacy, through an ever more totalistic and ideological reaching for hegemony.
One such window has been the sordid affair of the UK pandemic lockdowns – as revealed by a paper trail leak of 100,000 ministerial WhatsApp messages, managing the lockdown project.
What did they show (in the words here of pro-government leading political commentators)? An ugly picture of how a western Establishment interacts in adolescent sniping at each other, and in its utter disdain for the populace.
Janet Daley writing in The Telegraph:
“It [lockdown] wasn’t about science, it was about politics. That was obvious as soon as the government began talking about following The Science – as if it were a fixed body of revealed truth … they were engaged in a deliberately misleading campaign of public coercion. The programme was designed to frighten – not inform – and to make doubt or scepticism appear morally irresponsible – which is precisely the opposite of what science does”.
“The model for the monumental government programme in which sitting on a park bench, or meeting with extended family, became a criminal offence – was the nation at war. Horrifying levels of social isolation were deliberately designed to present the country as mobilised in a collective effort against a malign enemy. Much of this went way beyond what we generally regard as authoritarianism: even the East German Stasi did not forbid children from hugging their grandparents, or outlaw sexual relations between people who lived in different households. Every other consideration had to be relegated in a heroic national struggle against an invading army whose objective was to kill as many of us as possible. And this enemy was particularly insidious because it was invisible”.
“We have been granted a rare glimpse of Power’s true nature away from the media gaze: how, in private, it schemes, swears, sulks and derides. On full display are all its dismal paradoxes: its fierce megalomania and constant seeking of reassurance from political aides; its tendency to groupthink and relentless sniping.
“One feels a new cold solidarity with 1970s [Watergate] America in its horror at the “low-grade quality of mind” that characterised their political class. But perhaps the strongest parallel with Watergate is that … the state’s operations seem suffused with humdrum nihilism. It is there in the amused crusades to “scare the pants” off people. It is in the deadpan mocking of holidaymakers locked up in quarantine [hotels] (“hilarious”). It is in the remorseless dedication to “the narrative”.
“How zealously the state threw themselves into implementing draconian measures, once it had decided at HQ that lockdowns were the correct populist call. We have come to learn how Hancock (Health Minister) conspired to “sit on” scientists, who he denounced as “wacky” or “loudmouth” for defying the official lines. We must digest the knowledge that civil servants insisted the “fear/guilt factor” was “vital” in “ramping up the messaging” during the dubious third lockdown. Just as unedifying is the revelation that, in the run up to this lockdown, politicians seized on a new variant as a tool to “roll the pitch with”. Perhaps most galling is Patrick Vallance’s (Scientific Adviser) advice that the Government should “suck up the media’s miserable interpretation of scientific data” to then “overdeliver” in an atmosphere of cranked up fear”.
“We see the PM appallingly served and briefed. Almost suspiciously so. At one stage, he is so in the dark about Covid’s fatality rate that he misinterprets a figure by a factor of one hundred. [Yet] the most revealing moment came in June 2020, when the mild-mannered Business Secretary, argued for certain rules to be advisory rather than compulsory. At this stage, Covid circulation had plummeted – deaths had fallen by 93 per cent from the peak: “Why is she against controlling the virus”, the minister complains. She is motivated by pure Conservative ideology! The Cabinet Secretary retorts [i.e., she is libertarian].
“The Lockdown Files include thousands of attachments sent between ministers. When I first came across them, I hoped to find high-quality top-level secret briefings. Instead, ministers were sharing newspaper articles and graphs found on social media. The quality of this information was often poor, sometimes abysmal”.
The ‘Lockdown Files’ – as published in the UK by The Telegraph – expose a toxic culture where any minister or civil servant asking “awkward” questions knew they were liable to be briefed against, sidelined or ostracised. ‘Off the boil’ Members of Parliament thought to oppose lockdowns were placed on a secret Red List, and the then Health Secretary’s aide wrote, “these guys’ re-election hinges on us: We know what they want”.
But the Files reveal something even more chilling. What was the overall public response to the publication of the files? Plainly said: It is that a majority of the people are so numbed and passive – and so in lockstep – as the state inches them through a series of repeating emergencies towards a new kind of authoritarianism, that they don’t fuss greatly, or even notice much.
To be clear, the Lockdown episode is iconic of this new schema of control effected through hegemony, ideology and tech. Autonomy for the individual – and his or her search for a life, lived with meaning – now is displaced by its opposite: The instinct to subjugate and dominate, and to impose order on an inchoate and seemingly threatening world.
The surveillance-based liberal managerial state has, as Arta Moeini has written, ballooned into “a totalistic and aspiring globe-spanning Leviathan”, fraudulently disguised in the feel-good casing of liberal democracy – the key liberational elements of which, having been long replaced by their antonyms, in an Orwellian inversion.
To be clear: All the excesses of state power that occurred in the UK during the pandemic were permitted within the realms of the Western political system. The state may at any time suspend the rule of law for what it deems the greater good. The pandemic merely exposed the workings in extremis of liberal democracy – channelling Carl Schmitt’s notion of a “state of exception” being the source-code to state ‘sovereignty’ over the populace.
In this ethical vacuum, and with the capsize of societal meaning, western politicians can only snipe coarsely at one-another, Lord of the Rings-style, whilst hoping to surf whatever ‘the narrative’ and the media ‘play’ of the day can ‘up their level’ in the power matrix. To be blunt, in its lack of any deeper guiding principle, it is purely sociopathic.
However, in pushing the pendulum of the liberal schema so hard over towards the hegemony extremity, it has caused the other end to the spectrum of the overall liberal schema to catch fire: The demand to respect individual autonomy and freedom of expression. This antithesis is particularly apparent in the U.S.
Liberalism was conceived during the early French Revolution as a project of systemic liberation from oppressive social hierarchies, religion and cultural norms of the past, so that a new order of liberated individualism could come into being. Rousseau saw it as a radical clean break from the past – a disembedding of the individual from family, church and cultural norms, so that he or she could better evolve as a unitary component to a redeemed universal governance.
This was the meaning to liberalism in its early phase. However, the subsequent Reign of Terror and mass executions under the Jacobins signaled the schizophrenic connection between ‘liberation’ and the desire to force compliance on society. The persistent appeal of violent revolution versus imposed (Utopian) ‘redemption of humanity marks the two oppositional poles to the western psyche which today is being ‘resolved’ through the tilt to ‘hegemony’.
This inherent tension between the radical liberation of the individual and a conformist ‘world order’ was to be resolved via ‘new universal values’: Diversity, gender and equity – plus restitution awarded to the victims for earlier discrimination suffered. This ‘liquid modernity’ was thought to be ‘globally neutral’ (in a way that Enlightenment values were not), and therefore could underpin the western-led World Order.
The contradiction inherent to this was too evident: The Rest of World sees the ‘liberal’ order as an-all-too obvious device to prolong western power. They refuse its ‘missionary’ underside (this aspect was never present outside the Judeo-Christian Sphere), and the claim that the West should determine what values (whether Enlightenment or Woke) by which we all must live.
The non-West observes rather, a weakened West and no longer feels the need to offer fealty to a global ‘overlord’. The meta cycle of enforced westification (from Petrine Russia, Turkey, Egypt – and Iran) is over.
Its mystique, its thrall is gone, and though lockdown compliance in the UK (and Europe) was indeed achieved through ‘project fear’, the success came at the expense of public trust. To be plain: the authority of Authority in the West increasingly is distrusted – at home, as overseas.
The crisis of liberalism’ contradictions and waning authority deepens.
Carl Schmitt’s other two mantras were firstly, to keep power: ‘Use it’ (or lose it); and secondly, configure an ‘enemy’ as polarising and as ‘dark’ as possible in order to keep power – and to keep the masses fearful and compliant.
Hence, we have seen Biden – lacking an alternative – resorting to radical Manichaeism to bolster Authority against his domestic opponents in the U.S. (ironically casting them as enemies of ‘democracy’), whilst using the Ukraine war as the tool by which to cast the West’s war on Russia too, as an epic struggle between the Light and Dark. These Manichean ideological source-codes for now, dominate western liberalism.
But the West has put itself into a trap: ‘Going Manichean’ puts the West into an ideological straight-jacket. It is a crisis of the West’s own making. Put bluntly, Manichaeism is the antithesis to any negotiated solution, or off-ramp. Carl Schmitt was clear on this point: the intent of conjuring up the blackest of enmities, precisely was to preclude (liberal) negotiation: How could ‘virtue’ strike a bargain with ‘evil’?
The West is too dysfunctional and weak now to fight on all fronts. Yet there can be no retreat (without some de-legitimising humiliation of the West).
The West has gambled all on its fear-led, ‘emergency-crisis’ managed ‘control’ system to save itself. It’s hopes now are pinned on its ‘Beware! The big boss has gone angry-mad’ act; he might do anything’, which it hopes will cause the world to back-off.
But the Rest of World is not backing off – it is becoming more assertive. Fewer believe what the western Élites say; fewer still trust their competence. The West has recklessly ‘placed its bet’; it may lose all. Or, more dangerously, in a fit of anger, it may kick over others’ gaming tables.