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The Reactionary Political Ethos of Lockdowns and Mandates

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The national press barely covered the anti-mandate, anti-lockdown rally in D.C (January 23, 2022), and when they did, they mostly described it as an “anti-vaccine rally.” That’s a ridiculous thing to say about an event involving some 10K-plus people who have had enough of the coercive impositions of the last nearly two years. To be there, they braved the cold, the cruelties of today’s plane travel, the DC vaccination and mask mandates, the prospect of being doxxed from facial recognition technology, plus the financial strains that have hit so many families due to business closures and inflation. 

All differences of opinion aside, the main message was that everyone has a right to freedom. Let’s get back to the progress we were experiencing in our lives before this great disruption. 

Why did it take so long for Americans finally to hit the streets in protest? For one thing, it was mostly illegal to do so from March 13, 2020, onward. States imposed stay-at-home orders and limited gatherings to 10 people. People couldn’t meet for civic clubs, church, family reunions, much less anything vaguely political. They forcibly separated people for many months. When the George Floyd protests began, they got the green light but that light later turned red again. 

Today there is massive pent-up frustration out there, alongside depression, ill health, financial hardship, and generalized shock to discover that we live in a country where freedom can no longer be taken for granted. We know now that at any moment, they can close our businesses, our churches, and take away our right to travel or even to show a smile. On any pretext. Absolutely astonishing. 

Is a backlash coming? It is here. It is a bit quiet for now but it will not stay that way. The ruling class absolutely overplayed its hand this time. In the coming few years, they will rediscover that rulers in every society must acquiese to the consent of the governed over the long term. When that consent is withdrawn, the results can be wildly unpredictable, but they generally mitigate against the rulers and in favor of a new way of doing things. 

How can I be confident about this? It comes down to three different ways to view the course of history. 

One, history is on one long trajectory headed toward one great culminating moment. Every moment in history points toward that end state. That is Hegel and Marx and a slew of crazy ideologues who think in that millenarian tradition. Also, some apocalyptic religions’ traditions hold that view. This worldview – the perception of inevitability somehow baked into the stream of events – has made a great deal of mischief over time. 

Two, history is just one thing after another with no particular rhyme or reason. Anyone who tries to make sense of it is inventing mirages of meaning that do not exist in reality. That view was generally held by English philosopher David Hume (but it’s a crude summary). There is something to this idea, but it doesn’t quite take account of certain observable ebbs and flows. 

Three, history is cyclical, with overlapping rounds of error and truth, good and evil, liberty and power, progress and reaction, bull and bear markets, recession and recovery, centralization and decentralization, and these cycles are powered by the ebb and flow of forces within the population that shape them. 

From my description, you can probably tell that this is the view I hold. It strikes me as realistic and fits most known facts about the shape of history. 

In light of this idea, please permit me some wild speculations about the bigger picture here. 

The last two years have been defined by a theme: centralization of power. It’s happened in technology. It’s affected politics. It’s taken place within financial markets. To some extent it is even true in media culture, despite the rise of the Internet. This centralization has overwhelmed all of us. 

  • We previously believed that there was some integral relationship between private life and political life, such that the aspirations of the ruled (due to democracy and so on) were somehow impactful on the rulers, until suddenly we were shown that this is not the case. 
  • We previously believed that our social-media and digital spaces were our own until we were taught that they are not. 
  • We previously believed that the Bill of Rights protected us, that our court systems more-or-less worked, that there were certain things that simply could not happen to us due to law and tradition, and then suddenly there were no limits to power. 

Why did all of this happen when it did?

Precisely because all these old-world institutions have been on the ropes for the previous ten to twenty years. The Internet has been a massive force for decentralization in every area of life: technology, media, government, and even money. We’ve seen over the last decade or perhaps two a gradual melting away of the old order and the emergence of a new one with a great deal of promise for empowering individuals and all social classes in new ways we had not previously seen. The richness and malleability of the human population were on the march against every force that had previously held it back.

Think what this means for the old order. It means a massive loss of power and profit. It means the transformation of the relationship between the individual and the state, plus what media we consume, what money we use, what rules we obey, how our children are educated, what businesses with which we trade, and so on. In other words, the ruling class — a big term but it describes something very real — faced the biggest and most disruptive threat in generations or perhaps in many centuries. 

This was the state of the world in 2019. It wasn’t just about Trump but he symbolized the possibility of dramatic change even at the highest levels (even if his own political impulses embodied reactionary elements too). The main point is that he was never one of “them”; in fact, he hated “them.” Of all people, he was not supposed to be president and yet there he was, tweeting and disregarding protocol and generally behaving like a loose canon. And his presidency coincided with a growing restlessness in the population. 

Something had to be done. Something big. Something dramatic. Something had to happen to remind the unruly masses who precisely is in charge. Therefore, the most powerful interest groups set to lose in the newly decentralized order of the future decided to act. They would reassert their power in ways that would inspire shock and awe. They had to convince the president to go along and they finally did. 

The result was what we’ve lived through for 22 months. It has been nothing less than a display of power and control. We have all been traumatized in ways we’ve never imagined possible. Our workplaces have been disrupted or shut. They managed to end religious freedom for a time. The freedoms we all believe we had and which were growing by the day came to a dramatic and stunning halt. We “went Medieval” exactly as the New York Times called for on February 28, 2020. 

Who is in charge? In the Spring of 2020, the entire ruling class shouted in unison, not just here, but all over the world: “We are!” 

I do not mean that there was a “plot” in some crude sense. I do not believe there was one. There was a coming together of interests, and this was born of fear and frustration that the world was changing too quickly and the wrong people were going to land on top. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the great decentralization would not be a soft landing from the old order. There would be, shall we say, bumps along the road. That is precisely what they created and what happened to us.

It’s best to think of these grim times as a parenthesis in history, a dramatic pause in the progress of liberty, prosperity, and peace but only a pause. Lockdowns and mandates ultimately stemmed from reactionary impulses, the same ones we saw in history when throne and altar set out unsuccessfully to crush the rise of liberalism. And it was a remarkable thing to behold, to be sure. But there’s just one major problem with the whole thing. It did not actually achieve its aims. 

Let me explain that. If you think of the aim as “take back our power,” it did accomplish that, however temporarily. But that’s not how they pitched it. They said they would stop and crush a virus and that all your sacrifice would be worth it because otherwise you would die or have your life wrecked. That agenda, that propaganda, has been a tremendous flop. In other words, the whole thing is being exposed as a massive error at best, and a complete lie at worst. 

Lying has consequences. When you are discovered, people do not believe you in the future. This is the situation currently faced by big tech, big media, big government, big pharma, and big everything. They display their power but they do not display their intelligence and they have not earned our trust. Quite the opposite. 

This is why the seeds of revolt have been so deeply planted and why they are growing so mightily now. The driving goal here will be to restart the engine of progress back to what it was only two years ago, back to the push for the decentralist paradigm. The technology that was pushing that paradigm is not only still with us, but it has been tested and dramatically advanced during lockdowns and mandates. We have more tools than ever before to confront and finally defeat the ruling class that seized so much power over two years. 

Tools and technologies cannot and will not be wished away. They embody knowledge that we have and knowledge that billions of people the world over are ready to use. We still have those tools. Among the most powerful is freedom itself: humankind is not meant to be caged. We have rationality, creativity, aspirations, and the will to use them all to better our lives. 

So yes, we’ve lived through an enormous setback, pushed by reactionary elements among the ruling class, but it is likely a prequel to what comes next: a backlash against reaction and toward a new stage of progress. Cycles within cycles. Forces of centralization have had a field day, and a good run of it, but the forces of decentralization are fighting back again with good odds of regaining the narrative again. 

It’s progress through freedom vs reaction through compulsion. 

The battle never ends. 

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and ten books in 5 languages, most recently Liberty or Lockdown. He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He writes a daily column on economics at The Epoch Times, and speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.


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