by Peter Phelps
Many aspects of our current lives emit more than a whiff of dystopia. Tuning in to our Dear Leader’s Covid updates, our morbid morning ritual of checking the death count, and doublespeak like “social distancing”, “isolation” and “Stay at Home”, would not seem out of place in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, as Tom Hodgkinson brilliantly sets out in our cover story (p. 10), many of the dystopias of 20th century literature proved unnervingly accurate in pre-empting our lockdown paradigm, none more so than EM Forster’s The Machine Stops. Some were beguiling – Aldous Huxley felt compelled to clarify Brave New World was intended as a warning and not a prescription. Those now addicted to their furlough-funded sofa-life, free from any obligations apart from defriending Covid contrarians, should take heed of such parables.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t follow the science or uphold the law. We should do both, if able to do so in good conscience. Lockdown measures and social distancing have been blunt but often critical tools in managing the pandemic, especially for a woefully ill-prepared country like ours. But we should remember they are last resorts, preferably undertaken voluntarily on a needs must basis, not aspirations in themselves. Science also tells us chronic social isolation causes depression, anxiety and even immune disorders, and a mortality rate equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. And let’s not start on lockdown’s impact on cancer treatment or schooling.
There is also the thorny issue of liberty. Lord Sumption describes in his new book, Law in a Time of Crisis (p. 14), how a previous generation of lawyers and lawmakers were grounded in history as well as law, and thus more wary of the excesses of authority and the tendency of all governments towards them. Most of us accept that laws implemented by tyrannical regimes, which go against the “natural” or some might say “God-given” law, are better honoured in the breach than in the observance. Indeed, that is the standard
we expect: “I was just obeying orders” was not considered a defence at Nuremberg or in The Hague for those who participated in persecution or genocide.
Our current dystopia is a tyranny of sorts. It’s one largely controlled by the ecommerce and social media giants who exist beyond the control or tax net of any one state (see our survey, p. 44). But it is also one operated for the benefit of large private companies and financiers, which often have powerful – and not always transparent – links to government. As we lie on our sofas cancelling another Covid heretic, these well-connected industrialists plough ahead with vast schemes such as PPE procurement or building HS2,
reaping huge profits for themselves at the expense of the taxpayer, and often of the planet.
For the facts on the climate emergency are also grounded in science – in the empirical evidence of rapidly melting sea ice and increasingly frequent droughts, floods and wildlife extinctions. So, what to make of protesters like young Blue Sandford (The Interview, p. 49), who have dug themselves in under Euston Square Gardens and elsewhere in a bid to stop HS2? The high-speed rail mega-project has little public support and is by any measure environmentally destructive. It would take more than a century to become
carbon neutral (see our survey, p. 38) and it’s doubtful we will have the energy to operate it effectively. The protesters are not motivated by profit – they are acting at great risk and cost to themselves – but by the desire to avert ecocide. Does the Nuremberg principle not apply?
Our current dystopia is a tyranny of sorts. It’s one largely controlled by the ecommerce and social media giants who exist beyond the control or tax net of any one state
The protagonists of The Machine Stops belatedly realise the importance of the natural world and their connection to it; something to ponder during this final pause before the relaunch of our society and economy. Some will disagree, but future generations are likely to see Blue Sandford and her co-protesters not as criminals but as patriots in the truest sense. Rather than follow orders, they took to the trenches to protect the land and its people.
Dystopian tales sometimes come with hope at the last. Perhaps the Tories are doomed to succumb to their own dry rot (Nick Cohen, p. 18), and Labour’s report card makes for darkly humorous reading (Nathanial Tapley, p. 7). But Tom Hodgkinson tells us true freedom seekers have the chance now to seek out a more wholesome reset. If, as Lord Sumption says, “a free society is a question of attitude”, then as we resurface and re-engage with all that’s been happening in our absence, we might consider taking Blue Sandford’s advice and challenge everything.
Peter Phelps is Editor-in-Chief at Perspective