Left and right conspire to march us towards tyranny and dystopia
by Tom Hodgkinson
In EM Forster’s novella The Machine Stops shopping is a thing of the past. The citizenry live in luxurious little cells and have everything they want – food, entertainment, medicine – delivered to them via tubes. They are physically weak and strong-looking babies are put to death. The people communicate via iPad type devices and rarely leave their rooms. When they do leave, they summon airships that arrive at their door in the manner of an Uber. They have thousands of online friends and spend their time attending or delivering lectures. The story was written in 1909 and is an astonishingly prescient vision of the present day.
In Huxley’s Brave New World, from 1932, books have been banned in the manner of Plato’s Republic. No one is allowed to read Shakespeare, as it might make them question their lot. Freedom has been sacrificed for comfort, and the inhabitants are made very comfortable indeed: they have nonstop sex and when things get rough they bliss out on the drug Soma, which seems to augur both Prozac and ecstasy. The great achievement of the authorities, says Huxley, is to have created a situation where the people love their slavery. “Everybody’s happy nowadays,” says one character, in a phrase later to be made into an excellent pop-punk tune by the Buzzcocks.
In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948, giant screens dominate the sitting room. These screens watch you while you watch them. They know what you’re doing. Google, Facebook, YouTube and the Government are thrown into one entity called Big Brother. The people are kept in a state of constant anxiety: the country is perpetually terrorised by an ever-changing threat. The populace are allowed to express their rage in a weekly session called Two Minutes’ Hate, in which they scream and shout at enemies on a big screen.
In each of these stories, we follow the progress of a rebel, one Nietzschean individual who makes a heroic effort to smash the system but fails tragically.
The parallels with our time are plain to see. We are encouraged to live in a state of fear and to value security over really being alive. Our every move is tracked and traced and online search engines know our deepest and darkest thoughts, desires and fears. For decades we’ve been locked in an ever-changing crisis: Cuban Missile Crisis, Suez Crisis, the three-day week, battling the unions, Falklands War, Iraq War, war on drugs, war on terror, war on Covid, and a divided nation warring over Brexit. A fearful, anxious and cowed population is easier to control, and insecure citizens tend to make excellent consumers.
And, as tech critic Jaron Lanier has argued in his excellent book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now, a desire to control is at the heart of the Internet: computer networks were conceived with BF Skinner’s behaviourism in mind. We’re all rats and dogs, in a horrible cross between a social experiment and money-making scam. Social networks are all about behaviour modification. We have fallen for the con: we all slave away for the social networks, unpaid, “expressing ourselves”, while they reap billions in ad revenues. Sadly our vanity conceals the true nature of the system from us. This is why anti-capitalists like Owen Jones do not see a problem with providing free content to Twitter, which will be offset by ads for the very brutal exploitative corporations which Jones might criticize elsewhere. His ego and his desire for more likes and followers blinds him.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise that the pandemic has suited certain interests very well indeed.
The goal of Skinner-style behaviourism is a populace that does what it’s told. The difference with the dystopian visions above is that the “machine” is owned by private companies and not by the state. That’s because no one would ever let the state get away with a centralized ID databank like Facebook. But present such a project as a means to “self expression” and self-promotion, keep it in the private sector, and we all flock in, desperate to be liked and noticed.
Western governments are now looking at China with something that appears a little like envy: how obedient, docile and eager to please their population is! How civic-minded! And how successful! Both left and right, at a certain level, are internally rejoicing over the expanding power of states and the extent of their own empires.
It’s been sad to me to see figures on the left who I formerly admired – two examples that spring to mind are George Monbiot and Paul Mason – join the Leninists and call for dissident voices to be banned. Monbiot and Mason, who may be outstanding polemicists but aren’t renowned for expertise on infectious diseases, have called for the Oxford epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta and various other scientists and hacks to be removed from polite society. Writing in the Guardian, Monbiot proposed censoring these heretics:
“A ban on the worst Covid lies should be time-limited, running for perhaps six months. I would like to see an expert committee, similar to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), identifying claims that present a genuine danger to life and proposing their temporary prohibition to parliament.
The new Anti-Virus site covidfaq.co might help to tip the balance against people such as Allison Pearson, Peter Hitchens and Sunetra Gupta, who have made such public headway with their misleading claims about the pandemic.”
Monbiot sounds like a cross between Chairman Mao and a 17th century Puritan, banning anything that doesn’t fit his world view. The really weird thing is that the authoritarian Left are making alliances with authoritarian Right. The above-mentioned covidfaq website is run by Sam Bowman who used to take his shilling from the right-leaning Adam Smith Institute, one of the many so-called “think tanks” out there. At this point it’s worth mentioning – in line with documentary maker Adam Curtis – that think tanks don’t actually do any thinking. They are in effect PR operations for ideologies. And were previously sworn enemies of the Masons and Monbiots of this world.
In a similar vein, Mason has called for Boris Johnson to silence (or at least mock) the dissidents. He tweeted: “I don’t just want Johnson to say “Stay home, save lives” etc. I want him to call out and ridicule the bull**** anti-maskers, lockdown skeptics and denialists in his own party – and order social media platforms to suppress/label Covid disinformation. That’s leadership.”
No Paul, that’s tyranny. As I said, it’s sad to see a formerly radical thinker abjectly submitting to authority in this way. And we’re perhaps lucky that, for all his faults, Boris is not actually a tyrant; at least, not yet. The problem for the Left is that it’s been the contrarian Tories like Toby Young and James Delingpole who have led the questioning of government policy on lockdowns. So, almost instinctively, people like Mason recoil against lockdown scepticism simply because Young, Delingpole and their shock-jock ilk are lockdown sceptics.
There are a few brave voices on the Left who are saying: hang on, corporations and governments are using Covid as a handy excuse to extend their powers and we should be very careful, or we’ll find ourselves sleep-walking into one of the dystopias imagined by Huxley, Orwell and EM Forster. There is an interesting “Left lockdown sceptics” site run by some trade union Marxists. The US magazine Jacobin published a long interview with prominent Yale and Harvard epidemiologists who questioned the wisdom of drastic lockdowns. There’s also a good anarchist statement doing the rounds, which warns readers to stay alert, in case civic mindedness and compassion obscure an abject submission to state control.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise that the pandemic has suited certain interests very well indeed. As pubs close and musicians lose all their income, the big tech businesses like Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google have got bigger and richer. Exploiters of the gig economy like Deliveroo and Uber Eats are thriving. And of course Pfizer’s profits are going through the roof: its multi-millionaire chief executive Albert Bourla recently boasted to the Financial Times of a “durable” revenue stream, thanks to boosters and the like.
Some right-wing wrong former Boris fans, meanwhile, have shown a touchingly naïve disappointment in their leader. Various Spectator-ish commentators have written columns along the lines of: “Hang on Boris, you were supposed to be the libertarian PM. But you’re presiding over the biggest extension of state powers seen since Cromwell.” They seem unaware that all governments seek to extend their power. That is in their self-important nature. (It’s a bit like those people who complain about our “divisive politics” without recognising a system that revolves around two major political parties is inherently divisive). And so, cavalier Boris has turned Roundhead, outlawing all forms of human congress, unless it’s via machines or those humans live under the same roof.
But the future is perhaps not altogether bleak. Some of us freedom seekers see positive changes: a slower pace of life, less consumerism, more time for creative pursuits, a higher level of autonomy, an end to nightmare commuting, a shorter working week, a less competitive atmosphere.
To cheer ourselves up in these gloomy days, I recommend reading a more positive vision of the future, William Morris’s lovely utopian novel, News From Nowhere. This delightful utopian fantasy opens with its hero returning to Hammersmith from a political meeting. He takes the underground, which Morris describes as “that stinking vapour bath of discontented humanity.” When he wakes up in the morning, the 19th century ugliness has gone and he finds himself transported to a society where people live without money and spend their time rowing along the river and drinking fine ales. It’s a sweet and charming story from the man who did so much to bring truth and beauty into the world. Positive visions are what we need now, and less talk of banning, censoring and calling out.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler. He is author of “How to be Idle, How to be Free” and, most recently, “Business for Bohemians”, all in Penguin.