March 6, 2020- By Isaac Bettridge
Isaac Bettridge compares a history of tyranny emerging from emergency situations to an evaluation of current world politics: has the coronavirus halt ensured the return of the autocrats?
In 1940, the American journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote an article in which she introduced to the world a macabre parlour game called ‘Who Goes Nazi?’, designed to be played at social gatherings. In it, participants are invited to look around the room, assess their peers and wonder, were Fascist rule to be imposed on their country, who would resist, who would acquiesce and who would jump at the chance to pull on jackboots.
I’m well aware that overblown comparisons between our era and the Second World War are already so gratingly common that the mere mention of it may prompt you to stop reading altogether, but I reckon that Thompson’s game has added relevance in the age of coronavirus. The experts have uniformly told us that harsh restrictions on our freedoms are necessary to curb the spread of the virus, and by and large the public have agreed with them- certainly, this column is not about to call for an end to such measures now, whilst death tolls continue to climb. Nevertheless, the speed and relish at which some countries and their leaders have taken to this sort of authoritarianism is deeply troubling.
Take Hungary for example. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a self-proclaimed believer in ‘illiberal democracy’, has long exhibited authoritarian tendencies: he’s rewritten the Hungarian constitution to eliminate checks and balances on his rule, packed the courts with sycophants and used punitive regulations to limit freedom of the press. On March 30, the parliament, with the aim of fighting coronavirus, granted him the power to rule indefinitely by decree, and whilst he and his supporters have said the measures are temporary, there is a long history of authoritarians claiming ‘emergency powers’ that they then never give up.
We are told that such measures are necessary in these extraordinary times, and hope that they will be relaxed once the threat passes- but history shows us that such dramatic expansions of government power often last well past their sell-by date.
Hungary has long been recognised as teetering on the edge of totalitarianism, but in other, nominally more liberal, countries, leaders have granted themselves equally vast authority: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has postponed his own corruption trial and allowed intelligence services to track suspected cases through their phones, whilst Indian PM Narendra Modi introduced his lockdown with less than four hours notice and has been accused of using it opportunistically to clear the streets of demonstrators who have been protesting his rule in previous months.
All around the world, freedoms are being suppressed, dissident voices are being silenced and police forces are being given awesome powers to enforce lockdowns, which has already led to incidents of abuses of power ranging from Derbyshire police contaminating a lake with black dye to ward off visitors to Filipino police shooting a man dead for breaking quarantine. We are told over and over again that such measures are necessary in these extraordinary times, and hope that they will be relaxed once the threat passes- but history shows us that such dramatic expansions of government power often last well past their sell-by date.
The aftermath of 9/11 in the US led to the emergence of a vast surveillance state notionally created to prevent another similar attack, but which has continued to mutate and expand even as the threat of terrorism moves down the political agenda. The US Department of Homeland Security, created in 2002 as part of the response to 9/11 and the 4rd largest government department (1st place unsurprisingly goes to Defence), continues to command vast budgets and power even as the defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda means international terrorism no longer poses a serious threat to the US, whilst the PATRIOT Act, which gave vast powers to law enforcement including indefinite detention of immigrants and the ability to search records without a court order, is extended every time it approaches expiration. What were once temporary measures enacted in response to a crisis have become permanent features of American government, and anyone who proposes their abolition (such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) is usually dismissed as a ‘radical’ or accused of being ‘anti-American’. Could we see a similar thing happening with the new coronavirus powers?
In an article for The New Statesman, writer Jeremy Cliffe warns against the rise of what he calls ‘the bio-surveillance state’, referring to the Israeli surveillance measures and other developments in Asia (such as in China, where citizens in affected areas must scan personal QR codes to show they are not defying restrictions) to warn of a future where the threat of coronavirus is used to justify ever-greater intrusions into our lives. Is he overreacting? Only time will tell- these days, it’s impossible to predict the future, and I certainly am not going to try and out-guess a world full of experts here. But I warn everyone to be wary of tyranny, no matter how sensible it may seem at the time, and to make sure that, once this pandemic is over, we have a world worth returning to.