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The Illusion of Republicanism


On May 11, 2023, the Biden administration lifted the last restrictions. We foreigners who resisted the Corona regime are finally able to travel to the US again. What is the explanation of that regime? Why could the Corona regime assert itself so easily and why can the same scheme continue with the Climate and Wokeness regimes? 

The best explanation, at least from a Western European perspective, is this: It was an illusion to believe that until spring 2020 we lived in a consolidated open society and a republican constitutional state. This was only so because the anti-communist narrative that prevailed until 1989 required a relatively open society and a relatively well-functioning rule of law. With the end of this narrative consequent upon the collapse of the Soviet empire, it was therefore to be expected that a new collectivist narrative would take its place and sweep away the pillars of the open society and the rule of law that existed as a demarcation from Soviet communism. 

This is the best explanation, because in its light the development since spring 2020 is not surprising but simply what was to be expected. The upshot then is that we must abandon the illusion that a republican constitutional state, characterised by the monopolies of force as well as of lawmaking and jurisdiction in the hands of central state institutions, is the appropriate means of guaranteeing people’s fundamental rights and realising an open society.

When from February 2020 onward, politicians in Europe floated the idea of sealing off cities in response to the spread of the coronavirus, I thought that if politicians were to succumb to this temptation of gaining power, the media and the people would oust them: Chinese totalitarianism cannot be applied in Europe or the US. 

When not only individual cities were locked down, but entire states in Europe and the US, I considered this to be a panic reaction. Panic was certainly deliberately stirred up, especially by those who should keep a cool head and rely on the evidence, namely scientists, civil servants, and politicians. Nevertheless, deliberate spreading of fear and panic is no explanation for what we’ve experienced since spring 2020. Panic doesn’t last for several years.

It was striking that some of the medical experts who were portrayed in the media as the mouthpieces of science had already predicted a pandemic in 2009-10 with the Swine flu – such as Anthony Fauci in the US, Neil Ferguson in the UK and Christian Drosten in Germany. Back then, they were stopped in time. 

Now, they were better prepared, coordinated and had powerful allies such as Bill Gates and Klaus Schwab. However, there is nothing new and nothing secret here. It was known what these people wanted and what kind of science they promoted. If one thinks that there is a conspiracy here, then one must simply acknowledge that there always are such conspiracies.

Like any “conspiracy,” also this one goes hand-in-hand with profit interests. However, there were many more companies that were harmed by the lockdowns, the testing, quarantine and vaccination requirements than there were companies that benefited from this regime. We’ve to explain why so many went along with this regime, to their direct, obvious economic detriment and against their values and convictions in their past dealings with their fellow human beings.

The conspiracy hypothesis doesn’t even offer a correct diagnosis. It draws the attention away from the crucial fact: The same pattern of action that emerged in reaction to the coronavirus waves also appears in other issues, such as the reaction to climate change and the favouring of allegedly oppressed minorities (so-called wokeness). 

The overall pattern is this one: People are placed under the general suspicion of harming others with their habitual course of life – with any form of direct social contact, one could contribute to the spread of harmful viruses; with any form of energy consumption, one could contribute to harmful climate change; with any form of social behaviour, one could in some way or other hurt members of a minority that has been oppressed in history. One cleanses oneself of this general suspicion by submitting to a total regulation not only of social relations but also of private life. This regulation is imposed by political authorities and enforced by coercion. The political authorities use alleged scientific findings to legitimise this comprehensive regulation.

The pattern is the same; but the people driving the respective issues – corona, climate, wokeness – are different, even if there is overlap. If there is a pattern of action that manifests itself in different themes, then this suggests that we are dealing with an overarching trend. The Flemish psychologist Mattias Desmet explains in part II of his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism (Chelsea Green Publishing 2022) how this trend forms a mass movement that ends in totalitarianism, also on Brownstone, 30 Aug. 22). The Oxford scholar Edward Hadas goes in the same direction in his search for an explanation on Brownstone. 

Indeed, we undergo the emergence of a new, specifically postmodern totalitarianism, as I argued in an earlier piece. Totalitarianism does not necessarily imply the use of open, physical violence up to and including the extermination of entire groups of people. The core of totalitarian rule is an allegedly scientific doctrine that uses state power to regulate all social and also private life. 

This is what the current trend is about that manifests itself in the handling of various issues, such as hitherto the coronavirus waves, climate change and the protection of certain minorities. These issues are contingent. They depend on what actual challenges (virus waves, climate change) arise that can be employed to drive this trend of a regime of all-encompassing social control. 

The underlying trend, by contrast, is not contingent. This trend is fed by the interplay of at least the following four factors:

1) Political scientism: Scientism is the doctrine that the knowledge developed by modern natural science and its methods can cover everything, including human thought and action. Scientism is political when demands for central government control of people’s actions through coercive political measures are derived from this claim to knowledge. “Follow the science” is the slogan of political scientism. Political scientism places science above human rights: alleged science legitimises political actions that override basic rights. “Follow the science” uses alleged science as a weapon against people’s fundamental rights.

2) Intellectual postmodernism and Post-Marxism: Postmodernism is an intellectual current since the 1970s that claims that the use of reason isn’t universal, but bound to a particular culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The result of this relativisation is that in society and in the state, equal rights no longer apply to all, but certain groups are to be favoured. Similarly, in academia, it is no longer only relevant what someone says, but primarily who says it, which is the culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the person in question. The consequence is that reason ceases to be a tool to limit the exercise of power. Reason as an instrument to limit power stands and falls with the claim of universality of the use of reason to be the same for all human beings. In its preference for certain groups against the universal use of reason with equal rights for all, intellectual postmodernism comes together with Post-Marxism (also called “cultural Marxism”), for which it is characteristic to always find new, alleged victim groups of the republican constitutional state with its principle of equal rights for all.

3) Welfare state: The legitimisation of the modern constitutional state consists in enforcing equal rights for all. This means that the political institutions guarantee security by protecting everyone on their territory from attacks on life, limb and property by other people. To this end, the state organs have (i) the monopoly of force on the respective territory (executive power) and (ii) the monopoly of lawmaking and jurisdiction (legislative, judiciary). This concentration of power, however, tempts its bearers – especially politicians – to extend the guarantee of protection further and further to protection against all kinds of life risks and recently, as we have seen, even protection against the spread of viruses, against climate change and against opinions that might hurt the feelings of some vocal groups (wokeness). In order to justify the corresponding expansion of the claims of political institutions to protection and thus power, the welfare state depends on narratives provided by political scientism and intellectual postmodernism.

4) Crony capitalism: Given the aforementioned concentration of power in the hands of central state institutions under the pretext of providing ever more protection, it is expedient for entrepreneurs to present their products as contributing to the common good and to demand state support. The result is crony capitalism: profits are private. The risks are shifted to the state and thus to those from whom the state can levy compulsory charges in the form of taxes to save companies from insolvency if necessary. If companies then adopt the respective ideology of political scientism, they can take this business model to extremes: The state not only rescues them from losses and insolvency, but also directly purchases their products at the expense of the general public, on whom these products are literally forced, without the companies being liable for possible damages. We have seen this perversion of capitalism with the corona vaccines. It repeats itself with so-called renewable energy sources.

The Corona, Climate, and Wokeness regimes are expressions of the powerful trend that results from the interplay of these four factors. More precisely, the transition into a specifically postmodern totalitarianism that we witness feeds on the alliance of the forces of the welfare state and crony capitalism on the one hand with the forces of political scientism in science and the ideology of Post-Marxist intellectual postmodernism on the other.

Exposing and analysing this trend, however, is only a diagnosis of what we see, not an explanation. The Corona, Climate, and Wokeness regimes are each driven by only a few people. Why are these few able to set a trend in motion in which so many swim along, so that the transition to a new totalitarianism takes place almost without resistance, despite all historical experience?

The Error about the Open Society and the Republican Rule of Law

This trend is unexpected and unexplainable on the premise that we’ve hitherto lived by and large in an open society and in a republican constitutional state. The open society in the sense of Karl Popper’s famous book The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) is characterised by the fact that within it different ways of life, religions, worldviews, etc. live together peacefully and enrich each other both economically (division of labour) and culturally through mutual exchange. The open society is not shaped by any shared idea of a substantive general good. There is no corresponding narrative that holds society together. Likewise, the rule of law: it enforces the moral obligation of everyone to respect the right to self-determination of all other human beings.

From an epidemiological point of view, the coronavirus waves were not worse than previous waves of respiratory viruses such as the Asian flu of 1957-58 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-70. This was clear and transparent from the beginning when one looked at the empirical evidence. Why were no coercive political measures to combat these past virus outbreaks considered at the time? The answer is obvious: The open societies and constitutional states of the West had to distinguish themselves from the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The contrast between West and East Berlin was visible to everyone. Reacting to a viral wave with coercive political measures wouldn’t have been compatible with what the West stood for.

However, was this so because an appreciation of the open society as such was anchored in people’s consciousness at the time? Or is the reason that society was held together by the separation from communism and thus by a narrative that was specifically anti-communist, and it was incompatible with this narrative to react to a virus wave with coercive political measures?

From the former point of view, there is no explanation of why a trend once again takes hold that leads us back to a society that is closed under a collectivist narrative. Let us therefore change the point of view: It is not merely a contingent fact that in the open society before 1989, there was a substantive narrative with anti-communism at its core that shaped this society. What is contingent is not that a narrative existed, but that it was anti-communist. 

Because the narrative that held the society together had to be anti-communist under the given circumstances, it had to allow for a relatively open society and a largely republican constitutional state. The representatives of state power could not be too repressive internally and intervene in people’s ways of life. The narrative did not allow for that. But that was merely due to contingent historical circumstances. These circumstances changed and made this narrative superfluous when the enemy disappeared with the collapse of Soviet communism.

Since it was not the open society qua open society that prevailed, but merely a narrative that was dependent on allowing a relatively open society for the cohesion of the society it serves, a gap emerged in the form of the absence of a narrative. Into this gap then pushed a narrative that, while superficially tying in its rhetoric to the existing open society in order to conquer its institutions, in substance does what narratives that are supposed to hold society together – and people who push such narratives in order to exercise power in the name of the common good – tend to do: establish a collectivism to which people must submit in their ways of life.

Why is it so that there is a primacy of socially cohesive and thus collectivist narratives over the principles of the open society? And why is it that the collectivist narrative that has now emerged postulates precisely common goods that all consist in protection from something – protection from viruses, protection from climate change, protection from opinions that (even if true) might hurt the feelings of groups with a loud voice (wokeness)?

The republican constitutional state, which then developed into liberal democracies, is the political order of the open society. The rule of law enforces the obligation for everyone to respect the right to self-determination of everybody else in the form of a concrete legal system that guarantees security against attacks on life, limb and property. 

To fulfil this task, the state authority is endowed with the two powers mentioned above: (i) the monopoly of force on the respective territory (executive power) and (ii) the monopoly of lawmaking and jurisdiction (legislature, judiciary). This monopoly, however, gives the organs of the republican constitutional state a fullness of power that earlier states did not have. If, for example, society was closed under a form of Christian religion, then the state organs were also subject to this religion. Their powers to legislate and administer justice were limited by this religion. The church, priests and also lay people could legitimately resist the representatives of the state power if they overstepped this limit. In the republican constitutional state, by contrast, this is not possible. The unlimited power of the state authority in lawmaking and jurisdiction paradoxically is the consequence of the value neutrality of the open society; namely the consequence of the fact that no doctrine of a substantive, common good prevails in this society.

The task of the republican state is to protect every person against attacks on life, limb and property by other persons. This is the rationale of the power associated with the monopolies of force and lawmaking and jurisdiction. But how is the state to provide this protection? In order to effectively protect every person on its territory from violent attacks on life, limb and property by other persons, the state authorities would have to record everyone’s whereabouts at all times, supervise all transactions, etc. 

However, this would turn the constitutional state into a totalitarian surveillance state. Where is the boundary beyond which the rule of law switches from a power that protects the liberties of every person against encroachments by other persons to a power that itself encroaches on the persons on its territory? Again, only the state authorities can judge this.

The problem is this one: Once there is a state that has the power of the monopolies of force as well as lawmaking and jurisdiction in a territory, the holders of this power tend to extend their power under the pretext of improving ever more the protection of every person in their territory from encroachment by other persons. To put it differently, this concentration of power attracts precisely those people who want to exercise power and therefore pursue a career as functionaries of this state power – such as politicians in particular, who try to win elections with ever more far-reaching promises of protection. 

In this way, the welfare state gradually comes about, which exercises a monopoly of protection against all kinds of life risks (illness, poverty, inability to work in old age, etc.), and thus crowds out voluntary associations that would otherwise provide such protection. The welfare state technocratically binds the people in its territory to itself through protection against life risks.

In this way we have already taken a big step away from the open society: The people in a territory are welded together by the protection that the state organs of that territory grant as a monopoly. The result is a demarcation from other people. Corresponding ideologies emerge, namely the ideologies of nationalism in the 19th century. The welfare state thus develops into the warfare state.

After nationalism had collapsed and the narrative of anti-communism had also become superfluous in the West, a globalist narrative took its place, which qua globalist and qua the lack of other powerful states from which it can distinguish itself (nationalism, anti-communism), must in turn draw on alleged science for its legitimacy (political scientism) and must give itself the form of improved protection against life risks – up to and including protection against viruses, against climate change, against opinions that can hurt the feelings of vocal people (wokeness). This narrative thus superficially ties in with the existing open society, but transforms it into its opposite, namely into a system of total social control. 

The welfare-warfare state simply needs such a narrative to continue its existence. This is the explanation for the development that has become obvious since the spring of 2020: This development is simply what was to be expected. Those who, like me, didn’t expect it, were subject to the illusion of republicanism, the illusion of the republican constitutional state as the institution that protects people’s fundamental rights and implements an open society.

A Way Out

Once we’ve recognised the dilemma into which republicanism leads, we are free to break the link between the open society and the republican constitutional state, insofar as the latter is characterised by (1) the monopoly of force and (2) the monopoly of legislation and jurisdiction. We also know how to realise this. The Anglo-Saxon tradition of common law is a way of finding and enforcing law that doesn’t depend on a central state authority holding the monopolies of force as well as of lawmaking and judiciary on a territory. This is primarily a case of finding out law rather than making law: recognising when a person or group of persons is exercising their way of life in such a way that they encroach on the right of others to live freely. 

As in every case of cognition, this cognition is best achieved through a pluralism that allows for trial and error or correction instead of a monopoly in the hands of one power. Freedom rights based on natural law can be clearly defined as property rights, including ownership of one’s own body, and thus made operational without the need for legislation by a central state authority to resolve conflicts. Similarly, domestic security services can be provided and enforced through voluntary interaction and association, rather than requiring a central state monopoly on the use of force – provided that a legal order as in common law is effectively implemented.

Even if justice and internal security can be guaranteed in this way, this still doesn’t address a central point: The open society is characterised by the absence of a collectivist narrative that binds society together towards a substantive common good. The connection of the open society with the republican constitutional state triggers the mechanism by which the state extends its protection ever further and embeds this extension in a narrative that shapes society. It is not enough just to break this link through a legal order and security services that do without a central state monopoly of force, lawmaking and jurisdiction; one must also prevent the gap of the value neutrality of the open society from being filled in turn by a collectivist narrative that undermines the open society. 

This means that the open society is also dependent on a positive narrative of freedom and self-determination. As an open society, however, it must be open in terms of how – and thus by which values – this narrative is justified. That is to say, it has to accommodate a pluralism of narratives which agree in the conclusion of implementing in society the moral obligation for every person to respect the right to self-determination of every other person.

We’ve not realised an open society as yet, because the link between the open society and the republican constitutional state undermines the open society. The open society can only exist without domination in the sense of a state with a monopoly of force as well as of lawmaking and jurisdiction. We can create such a society with the people as they are, if only we let them and if we counter the collectivist narratives with something positive and constructive. On that basis, I remain optimistic for the future.

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  • Michael Esfeld

    Michael Esfeld is full professor of philosophy of science at the University of Lausanne, fellow of Leopoldina – the National Academy of Germany, and member of the board of trustees of the Liberal Institute of Switzerland.

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