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Compassion Unhinged: The Robespierres of Lockdownism

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During the hot, wild spring of 2020, it seemed that Boris Johnson could barely open his mouth without saying something about the UK government’s intentions to “put its arms round” people during the Covid pandemic. 

The endless repetition of soundbites is a predominant feature of British political life, but this phrase was obviously particularly carefully calibrated. It presented the government’s behaviour not as authoritarian, but caring; not as cold and harsh, but warm and cosy; not as brutal, but kind. “Yes, we might be criminalising the very act of leaving one’s home or meeting a loved one,” it seemed to suggest, “But we are doing it because we care.” It felt almost familial. 

And, as crass as this tactic was, it worked. What the British political class seemed to intuitively grasp in that moment was that for lockdown to “take” in a country like the UK in the year 2020, it had to be presented as being driven by compassion. 

The population is not used to Soviet-style repression, nor Japanese-style conformity, but it is used to thinking of the state as a benevolent provider. The image of the executive embracing the population in its arms like a caring mother chimed with the way in which people already like to conceptualise the ideal relationship between themselves and their government. 

To the average British person, when times are hard, the state should be there to protect you, and Boris Johnson and his Cabinet well understood that their best chance of success was to align lockdowns with that sentiment. It had immediate buy-in. 

In this, the government was strongly aided by a relentlessly cloying mood that set in among the chattering classes in particular. A mantra was repeated: “We have to stay at home to save lives.” Every morning the newspaper front pages were dominated by photographs of those who had died; every evening featured TV news reports about particularly distressing cases in apparently overflowing hospital wards. 

We were confronted at every turn with the suffering of the afflicted, and enjoined to do our bit to lessen that suffering. Compassion (literally, the feeling of “suffering with” another) was roused throughout the population in tandem with the politicians’ message of loving kindness – and the two began inexorably to reinforce one another. “Let’s all look out for each other,” as Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, put it at the start of the lockdown in Scotland – reassuring her audience that “with compassion and kindness…we can and will get through this.”

Compassion, it goes without saying, is a virtue. But like all virtues, when taken to excess it becomes a vice. Given wings through politics, compassion can take flight to dark places. As with many aspects of modern politics, it is instructive in this regard to look back to the French Revolution, and in particular the figure of Robespierre. 

Robespierre is chiefly known now as a capricious authoritarian, architect of the Terror, whose Law of 22 Prairial – requiring only “moral proofs” in order to pass a sentence of death – sent ordinary men and women to the guillotine for crimes such as sawing down a tree, hoping for the arrival of foreign armies, producing sour wine, or writing. 

The Law’s victims were often convicted in batches of up to sixty during the course of a morning, and executed later the same day; many of them were from the same families, condemned by mere association with a purported criminal. Something like 2,200 were guillotined in Paris alone over the course of five months. 

All this was done to secure the revolution with which Robespierre personally identified: a dream of founding a republic of pure virtue, “Happy, powerful and stout-hearted,” in which not only dissent but even mere reluctance was prohibited. Standing in the way of that vision, even by just “hoping” for something different, was by definition to stand athwart the march of virtue itself – the attainment of the general good – and anyone who did so must therefore be condemned. 

Robespierre was the absolute embodiment of the sentiment that if one wishes to make an omelette, one must crack eggs.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Robespierre, however, as a psychopath or sadist. Far from it: he was a man of profound commitment to principle, and deep empathy. He had spent his career as a lawyer in Arras defending the weak and impoverished from the oppression of the Old Regime’s system of justice, often without charging a fee. 

Until the execution of Louis XVI, he had argued stridently that the death sentence should be abolished on the grounds of its cruelty. And his personal letters reveal an almost hypertrophied capacity for compassion. When Danton, his friend, suddenly lost his wife, Robespierre wrote to him, revealingly, not merely that he sympathised, but that “In this moment, I am you.” Compassion, recall, means suffering with another. Robespierre felt it in spades. 

How is that such an almost preternaturally compassionate man could send entire families to the guillotine for the most trivial of purported crimes? Hannah Arendt, in On Revolution, illuminates for us the relationship between Robespierre’s heightened capacity for compassion and the cruel zeal with which he perpetrated the Terror. She shows us that, far from being at odds with one another, the former led ineluctably to the latter. 

As she puts it, “pity, taken as the spring of virtue…possess[es] a greater capacity for cruelty than cruelty itself;” when freed from limitations, it causes the revolutionary to become “curiously insensitive to reality in general and the reality of persons in particular.” 

The “ocean of suffering” that Robespierre saw around him, and the “turbulent sea of emotion within him” combined to “drown all specific considerations,” ultimately meaning that he “lost the capacity to establish and hold fast to rapports with persons in their singularity.” He became like a “clever and helpful surgeon with his cruel and benevolent knife, cut[ting] off the gangrened limb in order to save the body of the sick man.” Compassion unmoored takes flight to abstraction, and as the general good of all becomes the ultimate goal, it becomes increasingly apparent to the revolutionary that any given human individual is of little relevance – and indeed must be ruthlessly dispatched if he or she poses an obstacle to the march of progress. Terror, as Robespierre said, is necessary to give compassion its power: it was indeed merely “an emanation of virtue.”

Compassion, for Arendt, is therefore toyed with at peril – it is “the most devastating” political motivation. Once it has taken over, ordinary political processes (negotiation, compromise, persuasion), not to mention legal niceties and procedures, come to seem “drawn-out” and “wearisome” in comparison to the “swift and direct action” needed. 

Indeed, to the truly compassionate politician, when he thinks of the suffering of the poor or vulnerable, to insist on “the impartiality of justice and law” appears like nothing but a “mockery” – an unnecessary hurdle at best; a tool serving the interests of the privileged at worst. 

What is required is expedient resolution of the cause of the suffering by any means necessary. It is only a short step from there to the principle, enshrined in revolutionary committees throughout France, that “anything is permitted to those who act in the revolutionary direction” – and, from there, to Joseph Fouché’s chilling declaration that the indiscriminate massacre of the citizens of Lyon was a “duty” performed “for humanity’s sake.”

It would of course be rather melodramatic to compare the proponents of lockdown directly to Robespierre, but the difference between him and them is really one of degree, rather than kind. Consider how the consequences of the myopic focus on compassion played out during the lockdown era, and how that rapidly turned to cruelty: the residents of care homes left to die alone without their loved ones, the women and children condemned to months spent in isolation with their abusers, the young people abandoned to depression and suicide, the many thousands of sick people discouraged from attending hospital to avoid putting a strain on health services. 

Consider how ordinary political processes were overridden, and how even the most basic elements of legal form were circumvented or ignored during the panic of 2020 – dismissed as “wearisome” hindrances to speedy executive action. Consider the insensitivity to the “reality of persons…in their singularity” of a Neil Ferguson, a Matt Hancock, a Justin Trudeau, an Anthony Fauci or a Devi Sridhar, each caught up in an image of him- or herself as a “clever and helpful surgeon” cutting away a gangrened limb, and dismissing the damage wrought by that “cruel and benevolent knife” of lockdown and its associated tools. 

Consider, when reflecting that at one time the British government made “mingling” a criminal offence and even appeared to prohibit sexual intercourse for singletons, that “anything is permitted” to one who acts in the name of compassion. Consider the imposition of mask-wearing and social distancing on small children (thank God never carried out in the UK) – a distasteful but necessary “duty” performed “for humanity’s sake.” Consider the way in which anybody who spoke out about any of this was immediately traduced, ostracised and condemned – labelled a conspiracy theorist or selfish narcissist who merely wanted to “let the virus rip.”

The root of all this, of course – as Arendt helps us to identify – really lies in the way in which people’s natural sense of compassion, elicited by all those news stories in the early days of the pandemic, became unmoored and abstracted from the particularities of individual cases. 

Very quickly in March 2020 it became established that there was a “general good,” that this general good meant reducing infections in the population at large, and that it could be measured statistically. 

Just as Robespierre came to see himself as surrounded by an “ocean of suffering” and thereby “lost the capacity to establish and hold fast to rapports with persons in their singularity,” so our political and intellectual leaders began to drown in a sea of statistics, seeing only the (often bogus) numbers of infections and deaths, and as a consequence becoming utterly insensitive to the effects that their policies were having on all of the individual members of the population, and thus on society itself. 

The final irony of course is that, as Arendt well understood, the problem of politicised compassion is that it tends to latch onto a particular class and thereby unwittingly inflict cruelty on the others. 

For Robespierre, the object of pity was the sans-culottes, and it was their suffering which therefore came to trump all other considerations. It was a “more touching calamity” than the execution of innocents or the massacre of purported counter-revolutionaries, and therefore such indiscretions mattered little in the grand scheme of the revolution. 

For the Robespierres of lockdownism, the object of pity became those “vulnerable” to Covid, and set against this “more touching calamity” the needs of other classes – chiefly children and the poor – were held to count for little. Indeed, the members of those classes could be visited with all manner of cruelties given the bigger goal the lockdown proponents hoped to achieve.

What conclusions can we draw from all of this? As I write, Boris Johnson (whose political career now appears to be firmly on a downward trajectory) is once again talking about the government “putting its arms round” the country – this time in relation to the economy and the incipient crisis in the cost of living. It seems as though politicised compassion in one form or another is here to stay. 

We can only hope that the lesson of history – that compassion can in fact sometimes go too far and take a tragic turn – is not too long in the learning.

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