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|From: Church & State: Articles|
|Date: June, 2020|
|By: Angela Clifford|
The Original Comes From China By John Minahane
the Swedish policy)‒ even the British joined in. The Deserterstate came back to Europe, at least for this experience.
There’s a joke going round currently:
First time ever: the original comes from China and the copy from Milan!
Bad history, maybe, but we needn’t be too hard on the joker. Obviously what he or she has in mind is the last few decades, when Milan was a major centre of original fashion design and China was the leading manufacturer of copies. Now something has happened which turns that on its head. Not in fashion design but in the art of government, a major new item was produced and displayed first in China, and then copied in Milan and subsequently all over Europe and elsewhere: the lockdown. But even this doesn’t capture the peculiarity of what has happened. It seems that the Milan copy was botched, and that the European lockdowns are imitations or variants of the reworked edition of the botched copy of a masterly original. The Chinese authorities (whatever the initial confusion) formed a definite purpose and pursued it with immense resolution. Their aim was to isolate the disease. To achieve this, it seemed to them that nothing less would do than a strict lockdown of the big city at the centre of the infection, Wuhan, and in large measure of the whole surrounding province of Hubei. There were “mini-lockdowns” elsewhere, in particular cities and districts and in the province of Jingxi; and everywhere, of course, infected people and immediate surroundings were strictly quarantined, the public was warned, and there were various restrictive measures outlawing gatherings etc. But the measures were graduated. There was no attempt to lock down the whole country.
The Chinese experiment has ended in spectacular success. To appearances, the disease has been smothered. New facts may emerge to complicate the picture, but they would need to be big facts indeed to make this something other than a triumph. In late February the Italian government imposed a quarantine on some fairly small communities in northern Italy, totalling about 50,000 people, where the infection was marked. This proved ineffective, and on March 9 the government decided to quarantine Lombardy, including Milan. But no sooner had they done so than they realised, apparently, that the balance of Lombardy in Italy was not like the balance of Hubei in China. The attempt to enforce a special regime in Lombardy could end in political catastrophe. So as not to go backwards while going forwards, the government immediately extended the lockdown to the whole country.
And this triggered something in Europe. Until then, in several countries (not all) the public and the regime had been insouciant. On March 8, International Women’s Day, there were huge marches in Spain. Three days later, the Champions League match between Atletico Madrid and Liverpool brought a crowd of about 70,000 to Anfield, including 3,000 Spanish fans. For good measure, 70,000 came to Cheltenham Races two days after that.
But by then Spain had been caught up in the great lockdown wave (how can one help using absurd images?) that was starting to sweep Europe. And within a couple of weeks even the British, who had been drawing on their deep-rooted Malthusian/ Darwinian traditions of thinking and were envisaging “herd immunity” as the product of a laissez-faire policy (to be distinguished, although this conflation is constantly made, from
As for the Slovaks (always alert, with the holy horror they have of being left out of the future) ‒ two days after the first case of infection was recorded in the country, schools were closed down in the main Slovak cities. Not long afterwards the entire Slovak government appeared on television in masks, looking like a delegation of extraterrestrials. The country was, I think, the pioneer of obligatory mask-wearing. Slovakia’s version of lockdown was in operation before the first recorded case of death from Coronavirus.
What’s the Point of Quarantine?
What’s the point of quarantine? To stop the disease from spreading. And if you quarantine the whole country? Well, of course, if you can keep it up until the disease dies down, that will be good for your neighbours... provided you’ve closed your borders. But actually, closing the borders was just what these quarantined states were slowest and most reluctant to do, even though what they were facing was a globalist virus that loved travelling. Close the churches, the schools, the pubs? No problem! Close the airports? Well... big problem.
However reluctantly, in the end most states imposed severe restrictions on access and required incoming travellers to do 14 days quarantine. In some states this has to be done partly or wholly in state institutions. Elsewhere the traveller is required to do home quarantine, which may be more or less strictly policed (I don’t get the feeling that Ireland, for example, is too energetic). But in Britain, as I write, at the end of April, about 10,000 people come into the country every day. Britain is four weeks into the lockdown, but the incoming traveller is not required to do quarantine, nor is he/she tested for health. (In fairness, each one receives a piece of paper that says be good.) Another odd feature of the European lockdowns is the trajectory. The chief epidemiologist of Sweden, which has refused to go along with the fashion, said some time ago: “You can’t keep a lockdown going for months, it’s impossible!” I think he was making two assumptions: firstly, that this was to be a whole-nation lockdown, of the kind currently in vogue; and secondly, that as a quarantine measure one would wish to sustain it until the infection was suppressed, as in Wuhan. Anyhow, he’s being proved right.
Spain and Italy were forced to start relaxing their lockdowns when there were still four or five hundred deaths a day. Of course, they had other statistics showing that “the curve is flattening”, meaning that now they could safely go easier (generally speaking, this is not the time to forget what Mark Twain said about statistics). The truth is that they would have liked to continue their experiment in its strictest form for months, until the infections died away, but they understood that the social damage incurred by doing so would outweigh whatever else they were achieving.
And just as earlier we had a Europe-wide movement of lockdown, so now we have a movement of lockdown-release. Every country has to be either doing it or planning it. (The Czechs, who often think for themselves, decided that all this was out of scale with the real situation and quietly began relaxing things even before Easter.) However, the mainstream view seems to be that relaxation must be done in a staged and highly disciplined way, and that new protective restrictions should be brought in even as others are loosened.
Recently, when Slovakia allowed some categories of shops to reopen (with strict conditions of mask-wearing, disinfecting customers’ hands, and customer distancing), as a tightening counter-measure the government proposed to restrict over-65s to shopping between the hours of 9 a.m. and 11a.m. and only from Monday to Friday. Shops that served such people at other times would be subject to severe fines. As a result, long queues of pensioners formed in front of the supermarket entrances in the mornings. Security men controlled the numbers and ages of those entering, sometimes asking them to show their identity cards (which was illegal, since only the police are empowered to do that, but the new law implied its necessity).
But Slovakia’s pensioners were saved from this compassionate measure, intended to protect them from the danger of dying as a result of too freely living. What saved them was doubtless the fact that so many of them are still working: the number is reckoned at 150,000, not insignificant in a population of five million. Some of those are doctors and dentists. Anyhow, the pariahs made their views known to press, radio and television, and they didn’t mince words. Their fury was unmistakeable. Among other things, they pointed out that for this measure to operate smoothly it would be necessary for all pensioners to wear yellow stars (or blue triangles, or whatever). A few days later the government completely backed down.
This is one of the very few cases of resistance I’m aware of, in what has been a remarkable Europe-wide exhibition of state power. And it’s significant that it came from the old, not from the young. The techie young is immensely obedient and malleable. Some Slovak commentators are wondering just now: if the schools are reopened in June, will the children obey the rules on wearing masks, disinfecting hands, keeping social distance, and so on? These concerns are misplaced. There may be some fraying at the edges, there may have to be ad hoc exemptions and exceptions (though certainly not many, as the principle of discipline must be maintained), but the children will do what the government says they must do
Looking Forward to non-Christmas?
I would think that social regimentation will be with us for a long time yet. It is not too much to say that the administering minds, having magnificently extinguished Easter, are eagerly looking forward to the prospect of at least severely policing Christmas. ‒ And will it all be worth while? Will it bring society more benefits than harm? We can expect to be deluged with propaganda saying that the answer is yes, of course, obviously, self-evidently so; the more enthusiastic will question the mental capacity of anyone who suggests the opposite. At any rate, one thing is clear already beyond all reasonable doubt: this has been a splendidly successful experiment in the exercise of state power.
Greta Thunberg has noticed. “This is what we can do when we listen to scientists,” she says. Greta is right. Admittedly, history isn’t really her strong suit, and she doesn’t know that we have been listening avidly to scientists for more than two hundred years. What we now call technology could perfectly well be called “listening to scientists”. It’s the application of the findings of science for purposes that are thought to be economically or socially useful, and this has produced the state of the world which Greta so deplores.
Doctors, of course, are a cut above the vulgar technologists, but they too have been listened to before now, with socially transforming consequences. Michel Foucault’s magnificent History of Madness relates how, through the agency of pioneering doctors, an entire category of people who had previously moved in society was excluded from society: placed in total and permanent lockdown, under meticulous care. But Greta is absolutely right to think that the lockdown movement opens vast new prospects for our possible response to the next big surprise that wounded Nature springs on us. Or simply, right now, to climate change. I used to think that governments could do nothing with the low-cost airlines, however they may damage the environment: they just bulk too large in the economy. Now I understand that I was wrong. Acting as a body, the governments of Europe (ideally with the Deserter-state on board, but even without it) could kill holiday air travel stone dead, if they came to a firm conclusion, backed by doctors and scientists, that this was essential. It could be done. They have the power.
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At this point, I think, there’s a question-mark over the European Union. But the question is genuine, not rhetorical: there might be a positive answer. From one aspect, of course, the lockdown movement was disorganised, unsynchronised, incoherent. Individual countries were looking across at their neighbours as well as over to China, but they made a lot of it up as they went along. Some governments took a while to realise elementary things: for example, when you’re in doubt whether people are taking things as seriously as they should, that’s the time to put soldiers behind the police on the roads and streets. The Chinese, who with well-merited confidence were giving friendly advice (in Ireland in early March, when the government was still committed to holding St. Patrick’s Day, the Ambassador came out with a statement that “hard decisions will have to be taken”), must have been amused.
People have said over and over again: European democracy does not have its demos, the coherent people that gives it meaning. This crisis might be taken as proving the point conclusively. Everything was done by the individual nation states acting separately, and the EU as such was nowhere. But looking at things more closely, one sees that, firstly, the nation states have the demos eating out of their hands, and secondly, even though acting separately, maybe they weren’t all that far from a co-ordinated movement.
3 It might be that this crisis was still too early, and that even if the Commission was led by a visionary like, say, Macron, rather than a lady who seems to be challenged, he wouldn’t have managed to co-ordinate things much better. But in the next great crisis, which cannot be far off, some person with hegemonic talents might have a splendid chance. The prospect cannot be ruled out.
Engagement of Europe and China
I suppose I look at all this rather bleakly. I have come in for some ridicule because of my liking for the way things are done in Sweden. But I cannot help feeling that the Swedes may be able to see things a little beyond their noses. This maverick in Europe’s herd has refused to go with the others. The Swedes do not understand why they have to go on a war footing against a virus. Salus populi suprema lex, “The People’s Safety is the Highest Law”: they have qualms about rushing down that road. They feel some old-fashioned, maybe sentimental, attachment to rights and liberties. Seemingly they’re worried that, if they go the way of the herd, some things that they value will be compromised, and probably permanently.
Critics have pointed out that the Swedes were sterilising so-called “social defectives” right down to the 1970s, so their notions of rights and liberties may be hypocritical and false. Perhaps. And even if they’re not hypocrites, maybe they’re sentimentalists, and they need to think with more realism. For my part, I think a time will come soon when the lockdowns are thought about with realism. Currently, people who are in them and part of them may feel that such an intense national commitment must at all costs be praised. But even later, it may be that the lockdowns will be praised, as a kind of groping towards an effective solution to their problem. If that is the judgment, it will imply that there should be a more Chinese mode of relation between state and society.
But in any case, one can agree fully that there must now be a deeper engagement between Europe and China. Many things favour it, including the evolution of the younger generations. Friedrich Nietzsche once, complaining about public discussion of the conditions of the working class, said something along these lines (I quote from memory): “I cannot see what the nations of Europe intend to do with the working man, now that they have made a question of him. The possibility of developing a different type of worker, a Chinese type of man, has been completely ruined.” It may be that, taking a long perspective, we can say that the great philosopher was wrong, and that the present generation of young Europeans is such as he might have approved.
Constructive engagement with China is already happening, in the course of these current lockdowns. Nor do I think that, given Europe’s new statist enthusiasm, this need always simply be China interacting with China-lite. (If I understand things rightly, Beijing is currently less medicalised than Berlin. In Beijing the municipality recently issued an instruction that people in public, if they cough or sneeze, must do so into their hand or sleeve. In Berlin they will be made wear a face mask to guard against any possibility that they might cough or splutter.) Furthermore, one must ask whether it is possible that Chinese influence could act as a corrective force against that mighty power which unbalanced Europe, actually pointed Europe towards its ruin, in the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and can still to this day destroy the balance in a state like the Ukraine?
(Just now, though, one pities the Americans: poor devils! Thomas Jefferson made things hard for them. Their current president will be blamed for problems that he didn’t cause and cannot do much about. Injecting bleach, of course, was a bad idea; on that, I’m at one with the extraterrestrials who write for The Guardian. It’s not prudent for a man in his position, at a time like this, to carry on thinking out loud, doing his best with his own mind and giving just half an ear to “the scientists”. (Greta would never do a thing like that.) But Trump can’t help it, he’s too old to change now.
As a matter of fact, he did come up with one notion of genius, though the extraterrestrials gave him no credit: the idea of quarantining New York. Now, this would not be like Lombardy vis-à-vis Italy-minus-Lombardy. In the American case the preponderance would be very much greater, with proportions more like what they were in China. New York City and New York State/New Jersey, compared to Wuhan and Hubei? The parallel isn’t ridiculous, and in terms of a socio-medical measure the idea made all kinds of sense. Unfortunately, here Donald Trump came up against Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers. States Rights come before all medicine: no one may quarantine New York!)
Additional to all the above, we must not forget what Brendan Clifford argued in a memorable article published over forty years ago, which has never ceased to intrigue me: that Chairman Mao, through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, infused a freedom-loving strain in the Chinese. Was he right? And what does this mean or imply? The question will be of importance.
The sense I have is that what’s coming will have features I won’t much fancy. I quite liked the old slovenly, lackadaisical life where, if I wasn’t advertising myself too much, I felt that Big Brother didn’t really see me. Now... During Easter, I am told, the Guards took a helicopter from Rath, near Baltimore, to Cape Clear and carefully checked all the pubs on the island, sending out the message: wherever you are, we’re watching... I acknowledge that the new turn in Europe is inspired by China and not significantly coerced by China, and I cannot blame China for that. It’s impossible not to be interested in the source of inspiration. Like everyone else, these days I read more Chinese books in translation. Luo Guangzhong, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms‒ absolutely magnificent! Tao Te Ching ‒ whatever it means, everyone should read it! I haven’t yet got round to Yan Xuetong, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (there are interesting details in the China chapter of Perry Anderson’s The H-Word: the Peripeteia of Hegemony). And my Little Red Book from fifty years ago, I still have it somewhere and must dig it out for re-reading. I expect it to shed much light...