‘For whether or not the age of revolutions is over, the age of state-formation has only just begun.’
— T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea, 1999
Table of Contents
- What We Know
- The Conspiracy Paradox
- The Power of Nightmares
- Capitalising on the Crisis
- Disruption and Redeployment
- The Emerging Ideology
- Biosecurity as Cultic Practice
- The Authoritarian State
- Brave New World
- The Time Given to Us
Hegel remarks somewhere that the owl of Minerva only spreads its wings with the fall of night. By this he meant that history is always written in retrospect about an already realised world. In 1940, no-one could know what every school-child knew in 1945: who won the Second World War. In five years’ time, perhaps, everyone will know the outcome of the current revolution in Western capitalism. But by then it will be too late. The owl of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, will be on the wing, and we will be left in the darkness. But if we are to keep the light of knowledge burning in her lamp, we can at least try to awaken from the sleep of reason into which we have fallen, and try to anticipate what monsters will emerge from the dark.
1. What We Know
We are approaching the first anniversary of the coronavirus crisis in the UK, and more and more people — on the Twitter account of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in the Facebook pages set up to share censored interviews with scientists, in the online platforms not yet shut down for discussing the evidence against lockdown, in the illegal meetings of friends in the homes of the people that host them, in the thousands of discussions and exchanges that happen at every act of resistance, every demonstration, every march — know that this crisis has been manufactured. But what else do we know?
- We know now that Government strategies for responding to a viral epidemic that had been in place for years were abandoned in favour of the historically unprecedented policy of national lockdown.
- We know that Government contracts for the campaign of propaganda worth £119 million were signed with PR firms 3 weeks before the first lockdown.
- We know that, in April 2020, the Cabinet Office approved over £216 million for advertising on what it called the ‘COVID-19 Campaign 20/21’.
- We know that the criteria for attributing deaths to COVID-19 were changed back in March to exaggerate the official number of fatalities.
- We know that 95 per cent of the deaths attributed to the disease are of people with pre-existing health conditions like cancer, dementia, heart disease or diabetes.
- We know that 84 per cent are over 70 years of age, and that the average age of those whose deaths are attributed to COVID-19 is the average age of death in the UK.
- We know that, a year into this so-called ‘pandemic’, just over 600 patients under the age of 60 without a pre-existing health condition have had their deaths in English hospitals attributed to COVID-19.
- We know that, in April last year, the World Health Organisation issued instructions to medical practitioners that, if COVID-19 is merely the ‘suspected’ or ‘probable’ or ‘assumed’ cause of death, it must always be recorded as the ‘underlying cause’ on death certificates, whether this is ‘considered medically correct or not.’
- We know that the WHO’s recommendations on the use of face masks by the public changed in June following political lobbying by the governments of, among other countries, the UK, and that even then it was primarily to encourage compliance with other restrictions on our rights and freedoms.
- We know that the first and only randomised control trial of the effectiveness of face masks in stopping coronavirus transmission, which was rejected by several leading medical journals, when finally published reported that the benefits were ‘not statistically significant’.
- We know that, for a long time, the UK Government deliberately exaggerated the number of so-called ‘COVID-19 deaths’ by including anyone who has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, no matter how long afterwards they died and of what illness.
- We know that, even now, anyone who tests positive within 28 days of their death is still recorded as a ‘COVID death’.
- We know that, since August 2020, anyone who tests positive within 60 days of their death is also recorded as a ‘COVID death’.
- We know that, according to the WHO, 30 per cent of infections, even in high GDP countries like the UK, are contracted in intensive care units, meaning anyone dying in a UK hospital has an equivalent chance of being designated a ‘COVID death’.
- We know that, even with the withdrawal of medical care for nearly 68 million people for the best part of a year, the age-adjusted mortality rate in 2020 was the highest in only 12 years, and that the population fatality rate from the coronavirus ‘epidemic’ is equivalent to a bad season of influenza.
- We know that, as even these inaccurately identified deaths have fallen, the Government has turned to the promotion of RT-PCR tests for the virus that, according to its own advisors at SAGE, have a false-positive rate higher than the percentage of the UK population testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 with these tests.
- We know that between 20 and 80 per cent of infections with SARS-CoV-2 are asymptomatic, and therefore calling them ‘cases’ is medically inaccurate.
- We know from a study of nearly 10 million residents in Wuhan, the epicentre of the infection in China, that asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is statistically non-existent.
- We have known for the past 55 years that at least four coronaviruses circulate freely in UK on a seasonal basis, providing prior immunity to SARS-CoV-2 in around 30 per cent of the population before it reached these shores.
- We know that any RT-PCR test reliant on encoding the spike protein unique to coronaviruses can incorrectly detect as SARS-CoV-2 anyone having a common cold from other coronaviruses at the time of sampling or carrying traces of dead and therefore non-infectious virus.
- We know that, despite this, the governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are using these meaningless statistics to impose tiered lockdowns across the UK, in further violation of our human rights and civil liberties.
- We know that this is being done under legislation that only authorises such actions when justified by medical evidence that has not been produced for Parliament but merely alluded to in press conferences.
- We know that the predictions of escalating infections and increased numbers of deaths by senior medical figures employed by the Government have been shown time and again to be wildly inaccurate fabrications based on predictive models challenged by the most eminent scientists around the world.
- We know that, as of publication, 351 coronavirus-justified Statutory Instruments have been made into law without a draft being presented to Parliament in advance for debate, without medical or other proof being provided of their justification or proportionality, and without an assessment being made of their impact, and that every one of these pieces of legislation requiring it has been rubber stamped in retrospect by virtual sittings of that Parliament.
- We know that £22 billion of public monies has been awarded in coronavirus-justified contracts without prior competitive tender to privately-owned companies with financial links to members of Parliament, the Government and their business colleagues.
- We know that more and more of the functions of the state are being outsourced to private companies unaccountable to the public that provides the money with which they are paid.
- We know that the coronavirus-justified restrictions imposed on the UK population since March 2020 have cost the country £280 billion, the equivalent of £4,112 for every man, woman and child in the UK.
- We know that, in contrast, the wealth of the world’s 2,200-plus billionaires increased by 20 per cent and US$1.9 trillion in 2020, more than in any previous year in history.
- We know that, by the end of 2020, the number of people in low to middle-income countries facing acute food insecurity will double to 265 million as a result of coronavirus-justified restrictions.
- We know that, under the cloak of this crisis, the Government and its financial partners have massively expanded the surveillance, monitoring and control of UK citizens through regulations, programmes and technologies that are implementing the UK biosecurity state.
- We know that, at the peak of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in April, more than 40 per cent of acute care beds in NHS hospitals were unoccupied.
- We know there is strong evidence that, at a conservative estimate, at least half the 80,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in 2020 were caused by lockdown restrictions that denied UK citizens emergency, elective, social and community care in order to free up hospital beds for an epidemic that was never in danger of arriving.
- We know that the renewal of lockdown over the winter of 2020-2021 is killing thousands more.
- We know that this lockdown was decided back in July, before the manufactured rise in so-called ‘cases’ consequent upon a huge rise in RT-PCR tests producing an even greater rise in false positives.
- We know that over the next five years, hundreds of thousands more people in the UK will fall into poverty, unemployment, bankruptcy and despair that will shorten their lives by many tens of thousands of years because of restrictions justified by these manufactured figures.
- We know that, although the GDP of the UK is rising slowly back to pre-crisis levels, the restrictions that continue to be imposed on the population are redistributing wealth from the public purse into the pockets of the rich and the powerful on a scale never before seen even in the UK.
- We know that the mental health of millions of UK citizens is being deliberately and systematically attacked through Government-funded campaigns of terrorism, fearmongering and lies designed to reduce the population to compliance, obedience, resignation and despair.
- We know that self-harming and thoughts of suicide, particularly among British children, are increasing.
- We know that the fines for the newly-created crimes of not wearing a mask, meeting friends or leaving our home without permission have been raised and will continue to be raised to levels sufficient to financially ruin anyone who disobeys Government regulations.
- We know that non-compliance with certain coronavirus-justified Regulations can now be punished with up to 10 years in prison.
- We know that the Government has looked at the legal barriers to making vaccination compulsory for a disease with a fatality rate of 0.23 per cent across the population and 0.05 per cent for those under 70, and has not ruled out making taking such a vaccine a condition of access to public life.
- We know that UK police forces are being given more power with reduced accountability to enforce these regulations with increased brutality and greater impunity from prosecution.
- We know that the legal profession, the media, the press, academia, the medical profession, the pharmaceutical industry, the financial and banking sector, the passenger transport industry, the civil service, the security services, the armed forces and every other public institution are collaborating in effecting the revolution of the UK into a biosecurity state.
- We know that this state is being implemented through the private sector as much as through the public sector, with the information technology industry, the healthcare industry, the education industry, the tourism industry, the hospitality industry and the retail industry all being compelled by coronavirus-justified regulations to enforce compliance with the technologies and programmes of the biosecurity state as a condition of using their services.
- We know that these technologies will not stop there, but under the guise of monitoring and protecting our biosecurity, not only from SARS-CoV-2 but from any other virus designated a threat to public health in the future, are penetrating and influencing every aspect of our private life, biological existence and social behaviour.
We know all this and more. But the question more and more people are now asking is: why? Why is this being done, and to what end? Of what benefit, and to whose benefit, is the impoverishment of the population of the UK and of most other Western liberal democracies around the world? Why would the governments of capitalist economies deliberately set out to bankrupt millions of small businesses and drive tens of millions of workers into unemployment and destitution? And what, if anything, can we do to resist it? This article is my attempt to respond to these questions, although not necessarily by answering them.
2. The Conspiracy Paradox
Cui bono, in Latin, means ‘to whom is it a benefit?’, or more colloquially ‘who benefits?’ It was a phrase associated with the Roman consul, Lucius Cassius, known in the Republic as an honest and wise judge, who when trying to identify the perpetrator of a crime always asked who stood to gain from it being perpetrated. Unsurprisingly, it’s a question that is being asked with greater insistence as the evidence of the crimes committed under the cloak of the coronavirus crisis mounts up, and the hitherto hegemonic facade of deception is beginning to crack. But there is still a barrier to the wall of lies behind it being torn down, and that is the question of who could possibly benefit from the destruction coronavirus-justified restrictions are inflicting on the populations on which they are being imposed by their governments, justified by their media and enforced by their police and security forces.
On the one hand, the question seems almost childishly naïve, like asking why the New Labour Government of Tony Blair fabricated the so-called ‘dodgy’ dossier that justified the UK forming a coalition with the US to invade Iraq on the threat of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that never existed. The fifth largest oil reserves in the world is the short and simple answer. But that answer, which every school child in the UK today knows, was apparently sufficiently unknown — or insufficiently believed — by the British public in 2003 to stop the UK Government and media collaborating to take us into one of the most disastrous military invasions in recent history. I’ve no doubt that in a decade the children of Britain will know why they spend their days masked before an Apple computer, have to update their biometric data into an Android phone every week, have everything they read censored by Facebook and everything they write monitored by Twitter, everywhere they go recorded by Google, and everything they earn and buy overseen and approved by Amazon; but by then it will be too late. We need to know now.
And yet, despite the apparent obviousness of the answer, it is not easy to put into words that everyone can understand and accept. The reason for this, as I want to show in this article, is because it is the wrong question. The current framing of this question offers only two responses, and in doing so has successfully divided the country into two hugely unequal camps. Either we are, in reality, facing a civilisation-threatening virus to which our governments are responding with degrees of incompetence and opportunism but to a genuine and real threat to public health; or the whole thing has been manufactured by a conspiracy of powerful individuals and organisations whose names and initials we are all familiar with by now, and whose immense wealth and influence enables them to grind the organ to which our various governments are dancing.
I don’t believe either of these answers to be correct. I have spent the past year showing why the statistical data, medical reports and coronavirus-justified legislation do not corroborate the veracity of the first answer. But I also don’t believe that the refusal to believe this blatant lie means believing the easily-dismissed second answer that there must — therefore — exist a conspiracy of political, economic and technological powers which have either manufactured this deadly virus in a secret lab in Wuhan or fabricated the effects of a virus whose genome still hasn’t been sequenced. On the contrary, I believe it is this binary response — a deadly virus or an even deadlier conspiracy, neither of which is supported by what we know about the world in the early Twenty-first Century — that has stopped the truth about this crisis appearing to those who are looking for it.
My answer to the question — Cui bono? — rests on a paradox. Its initial premise is a widely-accepted one: that, rather than explaining this crisis, the various conspiracy theories about COVID-19 — like most conspiracy theories — are a product of this crisis. But the paradox I derive from this, which draws attention to what we mean by a ‘product’, is less commonly proposed: that, far from undermining the ideological hegemony of the official narrative about COVID-19, these conspiracy theories are a crucial part of the construction of that hegemony. It is not by examining their claims, therefore, but rather their functions — beginning with the question of whom they benefit — that we can begin to understand what is happening, how it is happening and, maybe, why it is happening.
3. The Power of Nightmares
I want to begin by challenging the explanatory power of conspiracy theories in general, with the hope that, by doing so, it will undermine the foundation on which the coronavirus crisis has been constructed. The best place to start is with one of the most widely accepted and institutionally supported propagator of conspiracy theories, Adam Curtis. So embedded are his theories in our culture that I imagine most people would not regard him as a conspiracy theorist, a term they would reserve for believers in the ‘Illuminati’ or a ‘flat-earth’. But the reduction of all conspiracy theories to occult or scientifically-disproved beliefs is part of the function of what might be called the ‘discourse’ of conspiracy theory that is increasingly being used to dismiss all ideas and beliefs not sanctioned by the institutions of the state, whether political, scientific, religious or cultural. It has always struck me as curious that, despite the content of his numerous and award-winning television programmes — all of which, on the face of it, contradict and undermine what such institutions tell us about the world and recent historical events — rather than being banned or censored or marginalised are available on an almost permanent basis on mainstream broadcasting platforms like the BBC, where they are categorised as ‘documentaries’ and never bracketed with other ‘conspiracy theories’. This has led me to ask, Cui bono? — who benefits from the production, televising, and availability of these apparently subversive accounts of everything from the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the causes of the Iraq War to the power of the media and the 2008 financial crisis.
What all of Curtis’s accounts share in common is this: that history is made by a small group of individuals in positions of political and corporate power, usually putting into practice ideas he traces back to theoretical concepts developed years earlier by intellectuals and only later made possible by advances in technology. It’s a persuasive model of history whose theoretical simplicity is concealed behind the myriad of intuitive and tenuous connections Curtis draws between public and private organisations, whether Governments or corporations, and the secret dealings of their leaders. Indeed, his latest series, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, which is available to view on the BBC now, is an account of the rise of conspiracy theories told through barely articulated connections between individuals and events driven or guided by never identified forces. Significantly, though, over the more than 8 hours of its 6 episodes, the coronavirus crisis warrants only the briefest of mentions 10 minutes from the end, where Curtis merely repeats the standard liberal response about COVID-19 exacerbating inequalities in Western democracies. Some conspiracy theories, it seems, are off-bounds even to a BBC producer.
In this respect, although more credible than, say, Hitler’s conspiracy of Jewish bankers for Bolshevism, Curtis’s histories, in both their theoretical model of change and in the methodology of their telling, with archive footage bringing a veneer of history to historically meaningless generalisations, are exemplary of conspiracy theories in general. Power is located in the hands of a few individuals, who are limited to the intellectuals and mavericks who formulate the ideas, the scientists and engineers who develop the technology that allows those ideas to be realised, the CEOs and bankers who fund their implementation or the politicians and generals who put them into practice. Like the old histories of kings and queens and the wars they started, this is a history of the elite. The masses appear only as the object of their manipulations, the foot-soldiers they send to war, the victims they killed, and the civilians back home who waved their national flags and corporate logos and cheered. What this model of history does is two things.
First, such immense power and influence is attributed to this elite that they are depicted as more than kings, almost as gods, employing all the rapidly-evolving power of technology, whether that’s computers, robotics, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, quantum computing or the military hardware they drive. (All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is the title of Curtis’s 3-part film, televised on the BBC in 2011, about the power of computers to create our perception of the world.) Second, and as a consequence of this depiction, the rest of us, the masses of Western democracies, are depicted not only as powerless but also as drained by this depiction of any historical agency whatsoever. The spectacle of our own impotence in the face of the depicted nexus of political, military and technological power becomes the object of filmic consumption. And as the German critic, Walter Benjamin, wrote of the spectacle of war under fascism, our alienation from ourselves has reached such a degree that even the depiction of the annihilation of our agency is now experienced as an aesthetic pleasure. (Everything is Going According to Plan is the title of Curtis’s 2013 film about how technocrats and global corporations have established an ultraconservative norm behind the fake, enchanting prison of the internet.)
This, I believe, is why Curtis’s otherwise so traumatic accounts of our manufactured impotence are so popular, so available for viewing on mainstream media platforms that otherwise refuse to report on what is happening in the world, so readily consumed by a UK public otherwise indifferent to the suffering our Government inflicts on other countries and peoples, and why they have become the primary model by which the world is now explained and understood. In a choice between being told that we are flies to the wanton boys running the world and blank incomprehension at the vast and terrifying complexity of that world, it seems we overwhelmingly prefer the first story for our evening’s television. (The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear is the title of another 3-part film, televised on the BBC in 2004, about how the US created a mythical enemy out of Islam in order to drum up global support for its military interventions in the oil-rich Middle East.) So what’s wrong with this model of history, and what does it have to tell us about the latest incomprehensible event by which we are being terrorised into apathy and compliance?
Perhaps I should start by saying that I imagine the organisations and individuals named in Curtis’s programmes, like the ones named in the conspiracy theories about COVID-19, do all behave like conspiracists. I haven’t forgotten the distinction made by an unnamed senior adviser in the George W. Bush administration between a ‘reality-based community’ and a ‘faith-based presidency’. This was reported in the New York Times Magazine in October 2004, the same month the Lancet medical journal estimated that 100,000 ‘excess’ Iraqi deaths from all causes had occurred since the U.S. invasion began:
‘The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community”, which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore”, he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”’
This is straight out of the dystopian accounts of the power of nightmares to create reality that are the bread and butter of Curtis’s phantasmagoria. And just as the coronavirus crisis has produced a spate of conspiracy theories about its origins, authors and ends, so the threat of their irresistible power has given rise to an opposed phenomenon, which the current crisis has formed into some of the most bizarre statements to be published even in the UK press. Since this crisis has begun, anyone who attributes any influence or deliberation or intentions to any organisation — whether that’s to previously less well-known organisations like the World Health Organisation, the World Economic Forum or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, or to organisations that have been at the forefront of recent political debates, like the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, or indeed the UK Government itself — is immediately denounced as a ‘conspiracy theorist’. Faced with evidence of the power of these organisations to ‘create our own reality’, our first resort, it seems, is to denounce their existence, like children who hope that, by closing their eyes, the monster at the bottom of their bed will disappear.
It’s not as famous or as often quoted as the line about philosophers interpreting the world rather than changing it, but in the same text Marx wrote that ‘all mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of that practice’. So I want to start our awakening from the sleep of reason by looking at the social practices of the coronavirus crisis, and at how this can correct the conspiracy theory of an elite with their hands, like the Wizard of Oz, on the gears of history. Let’s pull back that curtain and look at this machine. We all know its name, and despite all the renewed predictions of its death it hasn’t gone away. On the contrary, it’s just going through a revolution — perhaps one worthy of a new prefix — but its name is still the same. Capitalism.
Marx was right. When the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production — in legal terms its property relations — a period of social revolution begins. ‘With the change of the economic foundations’, he wrote, ‘the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.’ The expansion into new markets of the neoliberal capitalism that has dominated Western democracies for the past 40 years no longer has to accommodate liberal democracy. What we are undergoing — what we are colluding in producing — are the new political, legal and social forms for a multinational biosecurity state. And no elite, no matter how powerful, is in control of it, for the simple reason that, despite the proliferation of immensely powerful international organisations increasingly divorced from and opposed to the democratic process, capitalism is a dynamic process that develops by conflict and contradiction.
Capitalism has a grip on the world the like of which it has never had before, and as it faces the long-heralded limits to that expansion it is developing new forms and powers to extend that grip further over the world’s diminishing resources. But there is no single government or corporation ruling the globe, no secret society whose members sit on every cabinet and board. The US Government is the greatest military power the world has ever seen, and the United Nations has long been superseded by far more unaccountable coalitions of state and corporate powers whose activities are largely secret and getting more so. And the power of technology to monitor and control the world’s populations is expanding at an exponential rate in both breadth and depth. But the world is not a single, supra-political block. There is no invisible hand of the market-god ruling over us, for good or for evil; there are only devils competing for his crown. The world undergoing this revolution in capitalism remains a conflict whose battleground, now and for the immediate future, is the coronavirus crisis. What makes that conflict new for Western democracies is that the war being waged is a civil one, of governments against their own people, rather than against other countries. By looking at how this civil war is being waged, therefore, we can begin to understand to what ends it is being fought. And, hopefully, from better understanding the field of battle and our place on it, we can stop being the canon-fodder of dictators both known and unknown, desert the ranks of compliance, and start deciding ourselves what battles we want to fight, how and against whom.
4. Capitalising on the Crisis
What is lacking in Curtis’s model of history — the conspiracy theory of history — is its mediation through capitalism: what the German philosopher and sociologist, Theodor Adorno, would have called its ‘dialecticisation’. In conspiracy theories, capitalism is the producer of the wealth whose accumulation is the basis of power, the source of the technology by which we are deceived, the cause of the periodic crises that further tighten its grip on the world, the origin of the wars fought for its expansion; but capitalism is never a site of conflict itself. In conspiracy theories, the agents of history — whether it’s the CIA, the WHO or the G7 — always act directly upon it. Their agency is abstracted from the material relations of capitalism and hypostasised as ‘power’. But nightmares, to refer back to Curtis’s programme, do not drive the world, however much conspiracy theorists like to attribute such influence to those that produce them for our consumption. The material productive forces of capitalism drive the world, and unless a nightmare benefits those having it, they will wake up and the nightmare will vanish into the night. No war has ever been fought that did not make those declaring it richer and more powerful; and for a year now, despite the Government and its advisors repeatedly telling us that ‘no-one wants lockdown’, enough people have been benefitting from the coronavirus nightmare to keep the Western democracies of capitalism asleep and terrified. Without those benefits, all the power of nightmares at the disposal of all new technology wouldn’t be enough to keep us dreaming. So let’s see if we can wake from the sleep of reason and look with open eyes at whom it is benefitting.
I’m not going to discuss the corruption that most people in the UK are aware of without it changing their opinion of the Government’s narrative about the virus or answering their question about whom this crisis benefits. I’ve recorded examples of this corruption throughout my previous articles, whether it’s the technology-information companies being awarded untendered contracts for the various programmes of the biosecurity state, the manufacturers of medical supplies newly formed by Government ministers to make and distribute masks and other requirements of Government policy, or the pharmaceutical companies set to make billions from the Government making vaccines mandatory. Benito Mussolini reportedly defined the fascist state as when a cigarette paper cannot be passed between the interests of the government and corporate interests. But corruption in the UK is not only commonplace, it’s the norm. There’s nothing new about Government contracts being awarded to the friends of ministers and donors to the Conservative party. Such practices don’t reflect a new stage in capitalism but, rather, a further stage in the descent into the nepotism and unaccountability of what is now a constitutional dictatorship. Instead, I’m going to talk about the systemic changes to the superstructure — our political, legal and social forms — that are both accommodating and implementing this new revolution in capitalism. Because these changes are being implemented not through sweetheart deals between political parties and their corporate backers, but at a lower and far more pervasive level of capitalism.
Capitalism is typically understood as being derived from the noun ‘capital’, meaning the funds or stock that are the basis for commercial or financial operations, and a ‘capitalist’ as someone in possession of sufficient capital to use it in business enterprises. But capitalism is also a cognate of ‘capitalise’, which means not only to convert into a capital sum but also to use to one’s advantage, in economic terms to make capital out of; and it’s in this sense that the function of the coronavirus crisis within the changing relations of production and ownership in Western capitalism is best understood.
As a registered community interest company, Architects for Social Housing is contacted daily by a myriad of companies seeking to capitalise on this crisis. These include architectural practices promoting ‘COVID-secure’ designs of the new office space if and when we’re permitted to return to work; designers promoting reconfigurations of residences into a space in which we can ‘work from home’; various regulatory bodies informing us of the obligations of businesses towards their staff in a ‘post-COVID world’; law practices selling seminars on the changes to employment law in the wake of the latest bit of coronavirus-justified legislation; financial advisors keeping us up to date with the various Government grants available to businesses negatively impacted financially by the imposition of coronavirus-justified lockdown; medical suppliers advertising the latest, most effective and most fashionable ‘COVID-compliant masks’ for our employees; pharmaceutical companies selling cheap, easy and reliable RT-PCR and Lateral Flow antigen tests for the regular screening of staff; sellers of antibacterial door handles and touchless coffee machines; invites to symposia in which figures in the industry will explain the commercial possibilities of housing provision within the changed economic landscape; tech companies promoting the safety, security and benefits of conducting business meetings by their particular video communications package; marketing companies offering a free consultation in expanding our client base into the homes of a newly relocated workforce; management consultants offering interactive online seminars on the impacts of COVID-19 on the contractual obligations of employer and contractor and how to manage risk; businesses advertising ‘webinars’ offering advice, support and guidance for small businesses ‘during the pandemic’; debt collectors offering ‘no collection, no commission’ deals for companies falling into insolvency ‘due to the pandemic’; retraining programmes for industry professionals on furlough under the Government’s Job Retention Scheme; private health practitioners offering to help us overcome the challenges of staying healthy under lockdown restrictions; recruitment agencies with guides to how to provide effective mental health care for employees ‘during the outbreak’; IT companies renting hosted desktop bundles to run our main line-of-business applications in the cloud since ‘it looks like businesses will continue to ask their employees to work from home if they can for the foreseeable future’; online continual professional ‘lockdown learning’ sessions on emergency lighting, cavity trays, aluminium roof tiles and concrete repair; interactive online seminars on delay and extension of contracts caused by uncertainty during the pandemic; ‘coronavirus hubs’ for the latest news and support for small businesses; newly launched pharmacies run by banks to deliver repeat prescriptions to our door safely together with ‘a reminder of when to take our medicine’; concerned enquiries into how we are finding the latest lockdown restrictions from a business listings company; an interactive online seminar on how to complete a ‘robust COVID-19 risk assessment before re-mobilising your workforce’; purveyors of a ‘mobile COVID-19 barrier’ made to professional and commercial standard and ‘suitable for any space that requires distancing measures for personal or public protection’; first-aid training courses for employees to ensure our organisation is ‘compliant with current legislation’; leaflet distribution as the most effective way of advertising during the ‘current restrictions’ when more people are working at home; IT solutions allowing employees to work from home under lockdown or if we’re giving up renting office space for good; covert installation of tracking devices for company vehicles featuring ignition start alerts, driver monitoring, geo-zones and route violation, panic alerts, road-speed limit alerts, virtual odometer, animated replays and more; and invites to a virtual summit on how to ‘build back better’ for our ‘post COVID recovery’.
That’s just in the last couple of weeks, and just for our small company; but it conveys, I hope, something of how all UK companies are now attempting to capitalise on this crisis by offering new services responding to the opportunities created by coronavirus-justified restrictions. The word ‘lockdown’ has only negative connotations, and the media is full of stories about the jobs lost, the businesses gone into receivership, and the entrepreneurs declaring bankruptcy. That’s all true, but, once again, it paints a distorted picture of what is happening with the economy, much like Adam Curtis’s depictions of the unassailable power of a secret elite. And like his films, this inaccurate depiction of the changes to capitalism under its newly emerging superstructure forces us to ask why this transformation of our political, legal and social forms has been imposed and, at the same time, prevents us from answering the question. And the desired result is that we are faced, once again, with a choice between, on the one hand, a civilisation-threatening virus and the unprecedented changes it necessitates and, on the other, a secret conspiracy designed to destroy capitalism for unclear ends.
But the truth is that capitalism is not being destroyed. Rather, capitalism is going through what Marx called ‘an epoch of social revolution’, when the once dominant but increasingly redundant forms of its political, legal and social superstructure have finally come into direct contradiction with its economic development, and are now being disposed of with a rapidity that has shocked the populations of Western liberal democracies into acceptance. But with that rapid acceptance has come an equally as rapid collusion.
One of the barriers to answering the question of why this is being done, if not in response to a civilisation-threatening virus, is a misunderstanding of agency. When we ask who is doing this and to what ends, we implicitly frame the answer around a group of individuals, corporations, governments or international organisations all working in collaboration towards an agreed, desired and planned end. And that, unsurprisingly, is not believable except to those who understand the world according to the conspiracy theory of history. It was precisely this that was meant when, in response to my last article, Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: Manufacturing the Crisis, which analysed how a virus with the infection fatality rate of seasonal influenza has been turned into a civilisation-threatening pandemic, a reader responded with the rhetorical question: ‘Are you suggesting a worldwide conspiracy to subjugate humanity?’
It should be clear by now that I am not suggesting this, while not denying that, by definition, the foremost concern of those in power is to subjugate those who are not. But the question, which is not unique to this reader, does more than answer itself (for the only answer to this question can be ‘no’). In addition, it constrains the answer to a binary choice, neither of which is supported by the way capitalism has become the dominant economic system in the world, by asking the wrong question. What this question does is mistake agency with intentionality, effect with motivation. ‘What is the motivation? With what long-term objective? And by whom?’ was what another reader asked me. My approach to answering this question — and the title for this article — was suggested by another reader, who wrote: ‘The question that I always come back to is why? Cui bono?’ It’s a better question, because unlike the first it doesn’t offer an obviously unacceptable answer; but asking ‘why’ this is being done is not the same as asking ‘whom does it benefit’.
Benefit, whether financial or in power, may explain, as Lucius Cassius believed, who committed an act, and especially a crime, but it does not explain why something has happened. The man who sold his shares in a pharmaceutical company the day its vaccine was announced to have an efficacy of 95 per cent can with some assurance be identified as having an interest in circumventing the normal procedures for establishing the safety of that vaccine; but it does not explain why the vaccine rose in value sufficient to make him, as it did the CEO of Pfizer, three-quarters of a million dollars in profit in a single day. Dr. Albert Bourla did not conspire with the US Government, the US Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organisation or any other organisation to create the circumstances under which his company could sell over a billion doses of an uncertified vaccine to the governments of the world on the back of this crisis. On the contrary, he did what every other business writing to the e-mail of Architects for Social Housing has done: he sought to capitalise, both as a shareholder in and the CEO of the company, on the existing market condition. Of course, as the second biggest pharmaceutical company in the world, Pfizer has far more money with which to lobby the UK Ministers who award the Government contracts, far more capital to invest in producing a product accepted by them in record time, far greater access to the media that creates the climate of hysteria and fear in which that product is demanded and accepted by the public, and far more funding to invest in the regulatory bodies agreeing to bypassing normal safety measures to authorise the use of their hastily developed product. As I have documented in my article, Bowling for Pfizer: Who’s Behind the BioNTech Vaccine?, the line between influence, bribery and malpractice is a legal one that pharmaceutical companies cross repeatedly then buy their way out of prosecution for doing so. But this is the case with any multinational corporation of comparable wealth and power, and the global companies capitalising on the coronavirus crisis have not been restricted to those manufacturing or selling medical supplies — though that hasn’t stopped Amazon, for example, opening its own online pharmacy. This is the way capitalism works, not by conspiracy but by capitalising on the crises that are endemic to its dynamic development.
It also works by producing the false narratives about itself that Marx called ideology, in which conspiracy theories have assumed an increasingly important role today. Adam Curtis is open — insistent even — about his opposition to the historical materialist model of history which, in an interview in February 2012, he dismissed as ‘that crude, left-wing, vulgar Marxism that says that everything happens because of economic forces within society’. This was the same month unemployment in the UK reached a 17-year high of 8.4 per cent as a result of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, Iran suspended oil exports to the UK and France in response to economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and the USA, and finance ministers for the Eurozone unilaterally agreed on a second, €130 billion bailout of the Greek economy on condition the Government imposed austerity measures on its population that included tax rises, cuts in pensions, a 6-day week and state assets being sold to private-sector lenders. That’s about as crude as economic forces get. 7 months later, in September 2012, as Greek trades unions responded with a general strike and the US Federal Government faced further reduction to its credit rating because of the rise of debt to GDP, the UK informed the World Health Organisation about a novel coronavirus originating in Saudi Arabia, Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which the WHO subsequently identified as the likely cause of a future epidemic.
5. Disruption and Redeployment
Five years later, in a speech delivered in October 2017 when he was still Minister for Digital and Culture, Matt Hancock, now the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, told his audience from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution:
‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution will change the kinds of jobs needed in industry. Our strong view is that as a nation we must create the jobs of the future. Digital revolution brings with it disruption. The risk is not that we adopt new technologies that destroy jobs. The risk to jobs comes from not adopting new technologies. Our task is to support redeployment not unemployment.’
We’re beginning to understand the nature and extent of the disruption this revolution will bring about, the number and kinds of jobs that are being destroyed, the degree of unemployment and insolvency this is already causing. But what are the new technologies for which UK society is being destroyed? Into what jobs will we be redeployed in the future that is now upon us? What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
This term is most closely associated with Klaus Schwab, who has been one of the key world figures in directing our response to the coronavirus crisis. Schwab is the author of several books whose contents I’m not going to discuss here, as this isn’t what this article is about, but which have attracted the critical attention of many of those trying to understand this historical moment. The first, titled The Fourth Industrial Revolution, was published in 2016 and went on to be a global best-seller translated into 30 languages. It’s sequel, Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution: A Guide to Building a Better World, was published in 2018. And in July last year, Schwab co-authored with Thierry Malleret COVID-19: The Great Reset. The scope of the revolution these books envisage and promote is immense, with the reset applying not only to economics, society, technology, geopolitics and the environment, but also to digitisation, artificial intelligence, crypto currencies, energy storage and — which is the cause of much of the speculation about his influence — the engineering of the human being through biotechnology, neurotechnology and virtual and augmented realties. But although he holds PhDs in Economics and Engineering and a Master’s degree in Public Administration, has been awarded 17 honorary doctorates, including by the London School of Economics and Political Science, and is an honorary Professor of Business Policy at the University of Geneva, Schwab’s influence is not limited to that of an academic and author.
In 1971, Schwab founded the European Management Forum, which in 1987 became the World Economic Forum (WEF), of which he remains, at 82 years-old, the Executive Chairman. Closer in time, in June 2019 the WEF partnered with the United Nations; but its most important partner has been the World Health Organisation (WHO). On 17 January, 2020, when total deaths worldwide from COVID-19 officially numbered just 6, the WHO adopted the protocols for detecting and identifying SARS-CoV-2 set out in the Corman-Drosten paper, ‘Diagnostic detection of 2019-nCoV by real-time RT-PCR’. Among its numerous methodological failings, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, this paper recommended thermal amplification cycles of 45, far above the 30 at which infectious virus can be reliably detected or identified. At a stroke, this set the template for how to turn a virus with the mortality rate of seasonal influenza into a global pandemic. This duly materialised when, on 11 March, the WEF partnered with the WHO to launch the COVID-19 Action Platform, a coalition of the world’s most powerful companies that, by May 2020, numbered over 1,100. That same day, ignoring all previous criteria, the WHO classified COVID-19 as a ‘pandemic’.
In addition to this coalition, the World Economic Forum, which calls itself the ‘International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation’, has numerous partners among the most powerful companies in the world, which it lists on its website. In banking and capital markets these include ABN Amro, Allianz, Bank of America, Barclays, Citi, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Lloyds, Mastercard, Morgan Stanley, Natwest, PayPal and Visa; in information technology, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Zoom; in media, Bloomberg, Condé Nast, Facebook, Google and Thomson Reuters; and in healthcare the by now familiar names of AstraZeneca, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer. And if that isn’t enough of a basis for a conspiracy theory of COVID-19, Matt Hancock’s speech, which as near as announced the lockdown measures that two years later began clearing the ground for this revolution, was an introduction to the presence that day of what the Minister for Digital and Culture called ‘the man who made the Fourth Industrial Revolution a household phrase: Professor Klaus Schwab’.
What are we to make of such an organisation? In an article published last December, the writer and environmentalist, Naomi Klein, dismissed Klaus Schwab as a ‘Bond villain’, and accused those who cite its influence on governments’ response to this crisis of ‘coronavirus-denialism’. Yet the distinction she makes between what she calls ‘legitimate critiques’ of Schwab’s ‘dangerous ideas’ and what she dismisses as ‘truly dangerous anti-vaccination fantasies’ appears to be based on nothing more than the unwritten handbook of liberal etiquette. It’s true that the World Economic Forum is neither the World Bank nor the World Health Organisation, and we have to question why it has drawn so much attention over other international organisations of unelected individuals wielding immense financial power to influence the policies of democratic governments. It would be naïve to deny that much of what is being done under the cloak of the coronavirus crisis has been anticipated and promoted in Schwab’s books, or to deny the power of the corporations with which the World Economic Forum is partnered; but perhaps, if Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Fink had written three books on their plans to revolutionise the world, we’d be reading them and not him. Amusingly, though, for a long time anyone who referred to the ‘Great Reset’ online was contemptuously dismissed as a conspiracy theorist, until it was pointed out that the phrase was openly used on the WEF’s website. Here, once again, conspiracy theories are not undermining the official narrative about the coronavirus crisis but, rather, contributing to its ideological hegemony. And other coronavirus slogans, such as ‘Build Back Better’, which have been universally adopted by the political leaders, media spokespersons and industry CEOs of Western capitalism, clearly indicate agreement and collaboration between them on how best to use this crisis and to what ends. But although dismissing this as a conspiracy theory has influenced the public’s willingness to believe and comply with their government’s response to the coronavirus crisis, whether this collaboration is a conspiracy or opportunism ultimately doesn’t matter to the ends to which it is being directed. From a platform of Social Darwinism whose colours are revealed for all to see, Schwab and Malleret declare:
‘The micro reset will force every company in every industry to experiment [with] new ways of doing business, working and operating. Those tempted to revert to the old way of doing things will fail. Those that adapt with agility and imagination will eventually turn the COVID-19 crisis to their advantage.’
The coronavirus crisis is not, of course, the first crisis to be capitalised on in this way, although none has occasioned a revolution on this scale. But whether it was the War on Terror that removed all opposition to the programmes and technologies of the global security state, the financial crisis that justified the fiscal policies of austerity, the housing crisis that drove up property prices for off-shore investors, or the environmental crisis that is opening up new markets for capital investment, capitalism has always emerged from such crises with its grip on the world a little tighter, the laws subjecting its agents to scrutiny, regulation and prosecution a little weaker, the gap between rich and poor even wider, and the structures for its expansion more firmly entrenched in our economies. The so-called ‘crisis of capitalism’ hailed by leftists before Marx and ever since presents no threat to its continuation. On the contrary, each crisis removes more of the restraints to its expansion, not only geographically into every corner and resource of the globe and beyond, but ideologically, to the extent that the very thought of an alternative to it has become unthinkable, and biologically, into the bodies of its human agents.
It’s because of this expansion that to speak of motivation — as though any agency that doesn’t serve capitalism can survive within its suffocating embrace — is to misunderstand agency as human actions rather than the historical contingency of collective social practice at a given stage of development of the material forces of production. If Western democracies have all collaborated in this revolution in capitalist society — something those promoting the biosecurity state use to dismiss those who question the medical justification for this collaboration as conspiracy theorists, as though these countries have never before collaborated on everything from economic policy and trade agreements to economic sanctions and military invasion — it’s because, first and foremost, it is politically and economically possible for them to do so. More than that, it is necessary in order to create new opportunities for investment and open new markets for exploitation — such as the lithium reserves of Bolivia crucial to the development of the technologies of the Green New Deal for capitalism and which motivated the US-backed coup against socialist President Evo Morales. If the movement of personnel across national borders under neoliberalism, celebrated as the ‘freedom of the individual’ within the ideology of multiculturalism, was necessary to the unhindered movement of capital through global markets and into offshore jurisdictions, capitalism, in this new stage of its development, appears no longer to need such freedoms, which are extrinsic to its monopoly. What it needs — what it is producing — is emerging all around us, in the new social contract being drawn up between the individual and the state. But its existence cannot be denied, except by those who deny the existence of capitalism itself.
This is what I understand the Italian philosopher of biopolitics, Giorgio Agamben, to have meant when, in ‘Biosecurity and Politics’, one of his commentaries on the coronavirus crisis last May, he wrote that, ‘having replaced politics, even the economy, in order to govern, must now be integrated with the new paradigm of biosecurity, to which all other needs will have to be sacrificed’. Biosecurity is undoubtedly a newly-emergent ideology that has assumed dominance over our political, legal and social forms, but that does not mean that capitalism, as the economic structure whose stage of development has determined this emergence, has been superseded by the ludicrous equation of furlough and other state interventions with the dawn of a socialist utopia. On the contrary, capitalism, which long ago refashioned the state into its administrative arm, is now intent on realising its long-held dream of refashioning the human being. In the 1960s, at the height of the economic expansion that followed the Second World War, it was observed that, if aliens were to visit our solar system and observe the planet earth, they would think the car was the dominant terrestrial life-form and humans merely the energy source that, once inserted, makes them move. Sixty years later, it appears that capitalism will be satisfied with nothing less than erasing our useful but outdated human agency and replacing it with something more conducive to its survival in a world of dwindling resources. It’s in this context, I think, that we should understand the dystopian declarations of our very own Übermensch, Klaus Schwab, when he says that a Fourth Industrial Revolution will redefine what it means to be human through a ‘fusion of our physical, our digital and our biological identities’.
6. The Emerging Ideology
But hasn’t this brought us back to the answer from which my paradox was meant to offer an escape — of a vast, unstoppable, almost omnipotent power, which I have merely displaced from a conspiracy of global leaders to an abstract force called ‘capitalism’? Haven’t I swapped one monster for another, which, despite being grounded in political economy and terms like ‘the relations of production’, is just as mythical and unslayable as any beast of the New World Order slouching towards Davos to be born?
Hopefully this article will explain why this is not the case. Despite what we are told at every moment of every day, and never more so than during this pandemic, we do not live under a conspiracy but within the conflict and change of economic forces. Because of this, it is possible for the direction of these forces to change. I do not say ‘be changed’, which would once again attribute an undialecticised agency to an equally conspiratorial model of change, whether that’s a revolutionary working class or some other, new agent of intentional history. I would like nothing better than to see that revolution and a working class rise up and give it agency, but that’s not going to happen in the UK, nor in any country in which global capital has an interest (and global capital is interested in our very genes). The capitalised Revolution in the twenty-first century is as much a conspiracy theory to rock communists and anarchists to sleep at night as the human face of capitalism has puffed the pillows of social democrats and liberals through this sleep of reason. Both must be rejected as answers to the questions we are asking. Change will not come from some hypostasised agent of history, but in the same way that the businesses of capitalism are implementing the current change to the new political, legal and social normal of the biosecurity state.
There is no single author of change, not in the world of international markets. There are only the effects of millions of actions and transactions of vastly different sizes and influence which, when they converge with sufficient focus and force on a moment in time and place, bring about a revolution. That time is now. If you don’t believe me, look all around you. The revolution is on every mobile-phone app, laptop screen, billboard, bus shelter, closed street, shut-down pub, empty restaurant, supermarket queue, e-mail, fact-checked Facebook post, censored Twitter thread and, yes, online article. It has its political leaders, its financial backers, its propagandists and its armed enforcers, but it couldn’t have happened without our willing collaboration in this revolution. And this means that, although every contrary action is being met with more and more oppressive regulations, increased funding for its programmes, greater censorship of those who expose its lies and harsher enforcement of punishments for those who disobey its laws, the power to defeat the biosecurity state being built around, between and within us lies with us, waiting to be manifested as civil disobedience and resistance.
It’s a common perception that when the puppet dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc were no longer believed in by their hitherto subjugated people they simply dissolved overnight. That’s a Western dream of liberty being founded on the consensus of the people rather than the power of the state, and ignores the economic and political forces that made the response of the Soviet Union to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 so different to its previous responses to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. A conspiracy theory of history can tell us nothing about this difference, except to attribute retrospective success or failure to the conspirators. In contrast, a historical materialist model of such political, legal and social change must demonstrate how these changes were and are mediated through the uneven development of the economic forces of a society.
A useful method for understanding such changes was proposed by the Welsh socialist, Raymond Williams, who divided the ideological superstructure into the dominant, the residual and the emergent. What Williams meant by the dominant ideology is pretty self-explanatory, designating those political forms, legal structures and social practices produced by the ruling class, instrumental to their hegemony, and particular to the definite stage of development of the productive forces of a given society. In the UK, these dominant forms of ideology include the first-past-the-post electoral system that has produced the two party-dominance of UK politics for the past century; or the influence on the making and upholding of UK laws by our membership of the European Union these past 20 years; and the multiculturalism that, over the past 40 years or so, accommodated the global economics of neoliberalism.
However, since capitalism is always in a process of transformation, it is also always in the process of discarding redundant forms of capitalist ideology. Some, however, continue to have a function, and these residual forms designate those structures which, although formed at an earlier stage of its development, still play a role in its current stage. Among these residual forms in the UK we might include, politically, the function of a hereditary sovereign as the head of the UK state; legally, the qualification of rights of liberty, assembly, association, thought, conscience and expression by property rights; and, culturally, the Christian religion and, more specifically, the protestant values of the Anglican Church, but also such forms as nostalgia for our lost empire and, as we have seen, an easily revived patriotism when responding with what our leaders assure us are ‘world-beating’ programmes to a supposedly civilisation-threatening virus.
But just as capitalism is always discarding the redundant forms of its ideology, so too it is always developing emergent forms, and it is in them that we can best see the future to which the present has given birth and is even now struggling into dominance. By the emergent Williams meant ‘new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships’. Among these emergent forms of ideology in the UK in the early Twenty-first Century, we might include the influence of smaller political parties, such as the UK Independence Party, the Brexit Party and the Green Party, whose presence in the House of Commons does not reflect the influential and even decisive role they have played in recent UK politics; or the legal secession of the UK from the European Union and its effects not only on international trade agreements but also on human rights, employment laws and the future of the Union itself; and, most recently, in place of the open borders of multiculturalism, the inexorable rise of health and safety as the most important values in a society. It appears that the middle-classes who saw no harm in the impact of immigration on working-class jobs, salaries and employment rights are now only too ready to close those borders down when their own lives and livelihoods are felt to be under threat.
Williams’ key example of ideological emergence, however, is the formation of new social classes. For some years now we have spoken of two new class formations produced by neoliberalism. On the one hand there is the ‘precariat’, which is distinct from both the unified ‘working class’ of E. P. Thompson and the so-called ‘lumpenproletariat’ or underclass known to Marx; and, on the other hand, the ‘elite’, which is formed of more than the ‘bourgeoisie’, and includes a broader nexus of power closer to what we once called the ‘establishment’, but in which British Dukes rub shoulders with Russian oligarchs, Arab oil sheiks, Chinese industrialists and US arms dealers.
But these new classes have been around for some time now, long enough to leave a mark on the electioneering campaigns of our political parties and the grant applications of sociologists. What is emerging from the UK biosecurity state now in formation is something new and different. The prediction published on the World Economic Forum back in November 2016 that in the future we will ‘own nothing and be happy’ is a simplistic but suggestive indication of what is in store for us. No doubt it will entail a continuation and acceleration of the hollowing out of the hitherto almost sacred place of the middle-classes, whose consumer power is increasingly redundant to a capitalism confronting the limits of its growth, for which control of the remaining resources and not their greater consumption is the war being fought, and in which the new currency is not spending power but social credit. Add to that the evisceration of the petit-bourgeoisie as small businesses, independent shops, pubs and restaurants are systematically bankrupted by lockdown. And, as a result of this destruction, an exponential increase in a politically voiceless, legally disenfranchised and economically immiserated working-class of digital technicians and workers in increasingly automated industries. Finally, producing and produced by these changes, an even wealthier and even more powerful ruling class, freed of the shackles of scrutiny and accountability, their wealth protected by new laws, ruling by a technocracy to which only they have access, and protected by the immensely increased powers of an authoritarian state deploying the technology of our oppression.
For a glimpse of what new ‘meanings, values, practices, relationships and kinds of relationships’ are being produced by the coronavirus crisis, we might look at the coronavirus-justified changes to the dominant cultural form in the UK over the past quarter century and the flagship of multiculturalism — professional football. In addition to the vast profits being made by the multinational corporations, particularly in the USA, East Asia and the Middle East, that buy the wealthiest clubs in Europe in order to clean up their public image and open new markets for investment, it’s long been recognised that association football is also a spectacle that creates a sense of community within the increasingly fractured, isolated and divided society we call the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One of the most curious consequences of this is that, with the Government’s response to the coronavirus crisis progressively banning all forms of community outside the nuclear family — another residual but still functioning form of the reproductive bed of capitalism — the absence of community from what was the dominant form of our culture under neo-liberalism is now being artificially simulated.
We haven’t gone as far as South Korea, where crowd sounds in response to games are played over the stadium’s loudspeakers during the match itself, but the viewing of football games in the UK, which for the past 30 years at least has been for most viewers on television rather than in the grounds in which they are played, recreates crowd reaction and plays it over the televised footage of the games. Of course, football programmes have been doing something like this for some time. Even on matches that are televised live, the highlights are shown over a background sound of crowd ‘murmur’. Now, though, that background has been recreated with greater veracity. The swearing and abuse that occasionally filtered through the television has gone; but the increase in crowd reaction as a player runs down his wing or enters the opposition’s penalty box is now reproduced, and the cheers and applause when a goal is scored, and even the boos for a bad tackle, are carefully synchronised by the programme director. Some stadiums even have representations of the crowd, with generic images of smiling fans standing in for the unruly human reality. In Germany and Italy, clubs have reproduced life-size photographs of season ticket-holders in their club colours to occupy their empty seats, tokens of their ongoing financial commitment to club and sponsor.
What is being done here, I think, is two things. First, reality is being augmented for what has come to be called our ‘viewing experience’. Indeed, the companies screening this footage in the UK — Sky Sports, BT Sport, the BBC and Amazon Prime — have said they are augmenting the crowd reactions to make the deeply un-normal and meaningless sight of 22 players running around in an almost empty stadium while being yelled at by their coaches ‘a familiar viewing experience’. The second thing this is doing, therefore, is replacing the absence of community from this spectacle with a virtual community; and, by normalising this on televised programmes, which under lockdown restrictions are most of the country’s primary access to the world outside their home, it is accommodating us to the so-called ‘New Normal’.
This, I think, tells us something about the revolution we’re going through: that our knowledge and experience of the world is being deliberately and systematically restricted to the increasing numbers of screens on which we increasingly rely to gain access to the world and each other, and that the companies that control that access will dictate exactly what we know and experience and therefore largely how we think and act. From this perspective, the transparent lies, broken promises and overt corruption on which the biosecurity state is being constructed are less a product of the Government’s inability to produce more credible foundations, and more a testing ground for what the population will believe even when what they are being told contradicts not only the evidence of their own eyes but everything they have known about the world up till now. To do so, though, it must first remove our access to the competing market of collectively experience reality — in pubs, parks, shops, restaurants, gyms, sports, football stadiums, cinemas, museums, concerts, the houses of friends, access to the country, travel — whose inconvenient eruption into the lives of even the most online subjects of the biosecurity state threatens the media’s control over our thoughts, our behaviour, our spending, our politics. This is what Schwab and other promoters of the Fourth Industrial Revolution mean by the ‘Great Reset’, which is open about capitalising on this manufactured crisis not only to revolutionise the political, legal and social forms of a capitalist world that must change and develop in order to survive, but also to change the people in it.
7. Biosecurity as Cultic Practice
In COVID-19: The Great Reset, published last July after the first lockdown had generally been lifted, Schwab and Malleret wrote:
‘During the lockdown, many consumers previously reluctant to rely too heavily on digital applications and services were forced to change their habits almost overnight: watching movies online instead of going to the cinema, having meals delivered instead of going out to restaurants, talking to friends remotely instead of meeting them in the flesh, talking to colleagues on a screen instead of chit-chatting at the coffee machine, exercising online instead of going to the gym, and so on. Thus, almost instantly, most things became “e-things”: e-learning, e-commerce, e-gaming, e-books, e-attendance. Some of the old habits will certainly return (the joy and pleasure of personal contacts can’t be matched — we are social animals after all!), but many of the tech behaviours that we were forced to adopt during confinement will through familiarity become more natural. As social and physical distancing persist, relying more on digital platforms to communicate, or work, or seek advice, or order something will, little by little, gain ground on formerly ingrained habits.’
We can see how this revolution in human behaviour from our old ‘animal’ habits to new ‘technological’ behaviours is being implemented — ‘forced’ is the word Schwab and Malleret use — by looking at some of the new social practices, meanings, values, relationships and kinds of relationships being created by the emergent political and legal forms of the biosecurity state. A crucial aspect of these have been analysed by Giorgio Agamben in ‘Medicine as Religion’, another of his commentaries on the coronavirus crisis also published last May, in which he compared the ascendancy of medicine during this crisis to the emergence of a new religion.
Agamben argues that modernity has had three great systems of belief: Christianity, which is a residual but still functioning ideology, formed before capitalism but adapted to its needs, capitalism itself, and science, which Agamben calls ‘the religion of our time’. And while these systems have occasionally come into conflict, for some time now they have reached a more or less peaceful co-existence. With the coronavirus crisis, however, this peace has shattered, with science coming into direct conflict with both Christianity and capitalism. The focus of Agamben’s article is how this conflict has been manifested, which he says is not, as has happened in the past, through conflicting dogma or principles, but in what he calls ‘cultic practice’, which in science coincides with technology. On the character of this conflict, Agamben makes a number of observations, four of which I want to look at here.
First, he observes that it is not surprising that this conflict with both Christianity and capitalism has arisen in that field of science in which practice precedes dogma, and that is medicine, which borrows its fundamental concepts from biology. Unlike biology, however, medicine puts those concepts into practice according to an exaggerated dualism that draws on Christian concepts of good and evil. In medical practice, disease is the evil whose agents are bacteria and viruses; while health is the good whose agents are medicine and therapy; and as in every dualism, its practitioners, in seeking to do good (eradicating a virus), can end up doing a greater evil (killing more people through lockdown). It’s in this context that we should understand the biologically nonsensical declaration of Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, that he will ‘stop at nothing to halt the spread of coronavirus’, which means even if, in attempting what is a medically unattainable and even undesirable goal, he kills and ruins far more people in the attempt.
Second, Agamben observes that, although Christianity has known similar totalitarian tendencies, this was limited to certain cultic practices, such as the monks who turned life into a permanent act of praying. What we are witnessing now, in contrast, is a cultic practice that has become ‘permanent and all pervasive’. While medicine was once a practice to which we submitted when necessary by visiting a doctor or undergoing a surgical procedure, the entirety of human life has now been refashioned into what Agamben calls ‘an uninterrupted cultic celebration’, in which the enemy, the virus, must be combatted unceasingly and without possible truce. Again, it’s in this context that we should understand the declaration of Chris Whitty, the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer, that ‘we will not get to the point where there is zero risk’, a statement that condemns us to Hancock’s unceasing battle against an invisible enemy, and effectively puts the country on a war-footing for the foreseeable future.
And third — and this is the observation I want to extrapolate from — Agamben argues that the cultic practice of medicine is no longer free and voluntary but has been normalised as obligatory. Although the collusion between religious and profane power is certainly not new, what is completely new, he argues, is that this new obligation does not apply to the profession of dogmas but exclusively to the celebration of the cult. Profane power, manifested through the rapidly expanding apparatus of the biosecurity state, now ensures that the liturgy of the new medical religion is observed in actions. It’s in this that Agamben sees the extent to which Christianity and capitalism, which he calls the religion of Christ and the religion of money, have ceded primacy to medicine. For in order to follow its liturgy and perform its cultic practices, we have been compelled to renounce our freedom of movement, assembly and expression, our work, our family, friendships, loves and social relations, even our religious and political convictions. While the Church has suspended religious services and turned its cathedrals into vaccination centres, capitalism has accepted losses of productivity it would never previously have countenanced — though doubtless, as with all previous crises, in the expectation of recuperating its losses in future opportunities for investment and expansion.
So what do these observations tell us about the social practices, meanings, values and relationships emerging from the new political and legal forms of the UK biosecurity state? In making the distinction between dogma and cultic practice, Agamben means, by the latter, those repetitive behaviours which have a purely religious basis and whose assumed efficacy is therefore a matter of faith. The performance of these behaviours, therefore, is not only a declaration of belief (the repeated injunction to ‘follow the science’) but also of obedience to the orthodoxy of this new Church of Medicine. And, like all orthodoxies, the purpose of their repetition is to identify heresy and apostasy. It’s in this sense that I will refer to the followers of this aggressive new religion as the ‘COVID-faithful’.
To better understand this, we can compare the compulsive washing of hands with anti-bacterial soap by the COVID-faithful when entering a shop to the Christian practice of touching the forehead with holy water when entering a church. I’m always struck by how the COVID-faithful come out of shops with their just-disinfected hands raised high before them, exaggeratedly rubbing them together in a public declaration that they are ‘COVID-safe’. We might also compare the religious fervour with which social distancing is maintained by the COVID-faithful, as a way both to protect themselves from the evil virus and to recognise their faith community, to the Christian practice of crossing oneself as a sign of obedience to their God and to ward off the presence of evil. And like the explicit instructions on how to make the sign of the cross depending on which Church you belong to, Government instructions telling us in extraordinary detail how to wash our hands function to sanctify this formerly everyday act as a new cultic practice. Or, again, the carrying of so-called ‘immunity’ passports as a condition of entry or travel or passage across other symbolic boundaries can be compared to the crucifix Christians wear to identify themselves as members of their faith, or to the rosary with which they count off the prayers they have been prescribed to atone for their sins.
Finally — although this in no way exhausts the comparisons between the cultic practices of these respectively residual and emergent religions — just as the rite of Holy Communion reaches its climax with the transubstantiation of the wafer into the body of Christ, so its new equivalent is the taking of the vaccine which, like the eucharist wafer, purifies the impure body of the celebrant. Compare the exaltation with which the vaccinated announce on social media the conversion of their ‘vile body’ — as the Church of England describes the human corpse during The Burial of the Dead — into the ‘glorious’ body of those saved by God. And in scenes of ecstatic conversion, most recently staged in our nation’s cathedrals, these are accompanied by photographs documenting the insertion of the sacred vaccine into their profane body, accompanied by beatific expressions of their transubstantiation. Or perhaps a better comparison would be with the Catholic rite of confession, which must precede communion and which, like the vaccine, only confers temporary sanctity, and must be renewed at regular intervals by the priests ordained to administer its blessing.
In this regard, it is significant that the rite of communion was historically used by the Church to expose those who refused to partake, therefore identifying themselves as heretics or, worse, unbelievers. We should never forget that the immense wealth of the Church was built on the land it held through conquest, in return for duties performed in the service of profane power, and from the tithes and rent extracted at the point of a sword or, more recently, in a collection bag. As Agamben reminds us, religions have always relied on profane power to enforce orthodoxy with their spiritual power, and it is no different with the new religion of medicine, which has shown no hesitation in using all the powers of the state to enforce its cultic practices on heretic and unbeliever alike.
There is one point, however, where I depart from Agamben’s analysis, and that is with his assertion that the celebration of the new religion of medicine is confined to the repetition of cultic practices, and does not also require the profession of its religious dogma. Just like the Christian Bible, which few have read but many can quote, the dogma of medicine is equally unthinkingly quoted by the COVID-faithful, who repeat its catechisms in response to any attempt to question or correct the medically meaningless orthodoxies of the ‘New Normal’, whether that’s maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask in public, self-quarantining on the basis of an RT-PCR test, or the vaccination programme. In this respect, the COVID-faith more resembles the fundamentalist churches of the USA than Anglicanism or even Roman Catholicism. Like all fundamentalisms, there is only orthodoxy and heresy, complete and unthinking obedience to the word of the law or criminal transgression. The very act of questioning is now silenced at source. And as we are seeing with every new announcement by the high priests of medicine immediately made into law by the Government and enforced by the state, speech that is not authorised by dogma is now a crime, condemning the speaker to isolation, inquisition, conversion and, if its cultic practices are not embraced, punishment and imprisonment.
If you think such religious fundamentalism is a relic of the past or the purview of extremist cults with little political or spiritual influence over the materialist values of contemporary capitalism, consider the rapid rise and influence on world politics of Islamic fundamentalism over the past few decades. Or, better still, think of the influence of Christian fundamentalism on the politics of the USA, the greatest capitalist power on the planet, where no candidate for Presidency can hope to hold office without declaring ‘God bless America’ and affecting, at least, to believe in an interventionist God capable of saving its citizens from COVID-19 or any other plague of the devil. Or, closer to home, think of how quickly the market fundamentalism of neoliberalism has colonised the globe, substituting the value of the market for all other values, to the extent that ‘profit’ and ‘value’ have become synonymous and interchangeable in the language of economics.
St. Ignatius de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, famously said: ‘Give me the child till he’s seven and I’ll give you the man’. The sight of British children, despite being effectively immune to COVID-19, being subjected to the regulations, programmes and technologies of the UK biosecurity state by the institutions that should instead be educating, nurturing and protecting them from such cultic practices, shows that our Government has similar plans for their future. Just as the rights and freedoms we have so easily given up in order to observe these practices will not be returned, as many people still imagine or hope, so too the habits we form in following these practices won’t so easily be broken, least of all among our youth; and we’re already one year into the indoctrination of a generation into the cultic practices and religious dogma of the UK biosecurity state.
In the UK, at least, we like to think of ourselves as moving away from religion and towards science, something which until now has distinguished us from the USA. But as the rapid and almost total conversion of 68 million people to the dogma and cultic practices of the UK biosecurity state has shown, we are, to the contrary, returning to a new religious orthodoxy. In Psalm 39, recited during the Anglican ritual of The Burial of the Dead, the priest warns the living:
‘I will take heed to my ways: that I offend not in my tongue. I will keep my mouth as it were with a bridle while the ungodly is in my sight. Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days: that I may be certified how long I have to live. Take thy plague away from me.’
Who cannot hear in this liturgy the dogma of the UK biosecurity state which, in an astonishingly short period of time, has found millions of willing and obedient converts to its cultic practices? Add to that the hold pharmaceutical companies have had over the US population for decades and the culture of health and safety through medication and fear they are exporting into the UK, and we have the material basis for our mass conversion to this new religion.
And yet, we haven’t all taken the mask and the vow of obedience it signifies. After nearly a year of disinformation, censorship and lies, anyone who has not submitted to this cultic practice and its religious dogma, and who reads outside the corporate-owned media and its state censorship of heresy, will know that the regulations, programmes and technologies of the UK biosecurity state have not been imposed in response to a virus with the fatality rate of influenza. And if, instead of blindly believing in and perpetuating this self-deception, we start to think about them as the emergent ideological forms preparing the way for and implementing the next stage of the development of capitalism after 40 years of neoliberalism, then our confusion and inability to answer the questions of why this is being done, by whom and to what purpose — which, as we have seen, are the wrong questions — can be overcome.
8. The Authoritarian State
In The Doctrine of Fascism, co-written with Giovanni Gentile in 1927 but only published in 1932, Benito Mussolini, the President of Italy and Leader of Italian fascism, wrote:
‘The Fascist State lays claim to rule in the economic field no less than in others; it makes its action felt throughout the length and breadth of the country by means of its corporate, social, and educational institutions; and all the political, economic, and spiritual forces of the nation, organised in their respective associations, circulate within the State.’
There is a difference between what Mussolini meant by a fascist corporation, which was a government body that brought together federations of workers and employers’ syndicates to regulate production, and the commercial corporations that dominate the politics of Western liberal democracies today; but it is hard not to hear in this definition of fascism a description of the totalitarian reach of the UK biosecurity state. Perhaps the most decisive political outcome of the coronavirus crisis in the UK is the transformation of what was an ostensibly democratic government into a technocracy whose new campaign slogan is ‘follow the science’. In Italy, which has a history of technocratic governments, this has already been implemented this month, with President Sergio Materella, faced with the impasse of the coalition government, appointing the former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, one of the architects of European austerity, to form a new and supposedly ‘non-political’ administration. In its corporatised form, this is a product of neoliberalism and before that of fascism, rather than an emergent political form; but never before have Western democracies been so ruled by a technocratic elite. Not even the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels had as much influence over our destiny as the scientific advisors who today decide what our civil liberties and human rights are worth. This raises the question of the changing source of authority within the biosecurity state, which on the justification of protecting us from a virus has cancelled elections over the past year and for the foreseeable future. For although capitalism, in the next stage of development of its productive forces, remains the driving force of this revolution, its emergent political, legal and social forms are refashioning the state with extraordinary speed before our very eyes. So what is this new form of authoritarianism disposed of by the UK biosecurity state?
Revolutions make strange bedfellows, and resistance to them even stranger. Where would the Bolsheviks have been without the German Kaiser’s authorisation to transport Lenin from exile in Zürich to Petrograd’s Finland Station? Where would the French Resistance have found arms and ammunition without the financial support of Churchill’s Government? How would the Methodist grocer’s daughter from Lincolnshire have destroyed the UK’s industries and unions without the support of the born-again B-movie actor from Illinois?
Last month the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, led by former Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, published an open letter to the UK Government demanding a ‘Zero COVID strategy’. This includes ‘a proper lockdown that lasts as long as needed’, increased capacity for testing and quarantining the public, a programme of emergency measures to ‘help’ people to self-isolate, a functioning test and trace programme to ‘target and isolate’ those with a positive test, and the closure of schools until it is ‘safe’ to open them. Faced with the manufactured hysteria of the public, it appears the only opposition politically possible in Parliament is to compete to see who can demand the longest lockdowns, the greatest restrictions on civil rights and the harshest punishments for those who fail to comply with them. As a result of this unprecedented hegemony, I’ve spent the last year looking for and finding allies among those with whom I’d usually have no common cause. Among them are the former Etonian and Justice of the Supreme Court, Jonathan Sumption QC; the Anglican Conservative and Mail on Sunday columnist, Peter Hitchens; the multi-millionaire businessman and tax exile, Simon Dolan; and the journalist and editor of The Spectator, Toby Young. Although I could imagine spending an evening with Lord Sumption discussing how to challenge the legality of coronavirus-justified Regulations, and for some months I conducted a guarded correspondence with Mr. Hitchens, I’m not sure I would accept an invitation to anything with either Dolan or Young — but I have read what they’ve written. I don’t belong to a generation that judges the value of a public figure’s words or deeds on whether I identify with their cultural tribe. I find Young’s red-baiting and Dolan’s Trump-admiring as alien as I do Hitchens’ Christianity and Sumption’s Conservatism; but it’s their views, words and deeds in response to the coronavirus crisis that I’ve been interested in. And reading these this year, I have been made aware of something I wasn’t aware of before.
I would guess these four outspoken critics of the Government would define their political and social positions with very different terms, or understand different things by those terms; but all four would, I suspect, be called ‘libertarians’ by the COVID-faithful — ‘conservative libertarians’ the first two, ‘right-wing libertarians’ the others. Recently, Jonathan Sumption observed that a sign of the authoritarianism creeping across the UK under the cloak of this crisis is that the word ‘libertarian’, by which he means ‘a believer in freedom’, is now used as a term of abuse. As someone who has been accused of pretty much everything from both the Right and the Left, it wasn’t of this Twitterism that I was unaware. What has surprised me, though, is the equation of the state — at least by the last three of these commentators, Hitchens, Dolan and Young — exclusively with the authoritarian Left. For Sumption, I suspect, it is not the state in itself that concerns him, but rather the authoritarianism of the Government elected to use its apparatus and the reluctance or incompetence or cowardice of Parliament elected to oversee its use. But for the other three, the refusal to see the exponentially increasing encroachment of the state on our freedoms as anything other than an expression of left-wing authoritarianism has led them to denounce the emergence of the biosecurity state under the cloak of the coronavirus crisis as a kind of socialist coup.
They are not alone in viewing the restrictions imposed on us by the UK Government and enforced by the state apparatus as a socialist plot. In the anti-lockdown protest in Trafalgar Square I attended last September, there were placards not just comparing but flatly equating coronavirus-justified regulations with communism. One could put this down to a generation raised by the Murdoch news empire. But Peter Hitchens has also publicly denounced the Conservative Party as ‘left-wing’ — largely, as far as I can make out, because he believes it has taken its political ideology from New Labour, which is a reasonable assertion, but which he regularly accuses of being a Trotskyist organisation, which is not. In Toby Young’s on-line platform, Lockdown Sceptics — which was recently generous enough to provide a link to one of my own articles — one can find, alongside rational articles discussing the lack of scientific basis to lockdown restrictions, articles by civil servants outing the entire British Civil Service as ‘Marxists’. While during the US election I had to ask Simon Dolan on Twitter not to publicise his declarations of support for President Donald Trump as the last bastion of hope against the final triumph of world communism because of the damage he was doing to the popular front many of us are trying to form against the implementation of the biosecurity state, whose ideologues thrive on denouncing their opponents as conspiracy theorists for making such statements.
Now, I can’t speak for Dolan and Young, neither of whom I’ve met, but Hitchens is an intelligent man, although I find his views about everything other than the coronavirus crisis antithetical to mine. So how is it that they, at least, if not Sumption, denounce the Government’s response to the coronavirus crisis as a form of left-wing authoritarianism? It’s an important question, as it’s on this perception that almost the entire Left in this country, insofar as it defines itself as such, has come down on the side of the Conservative Government of Boris Johnson more firmly and unanimously than his occasionally rebellious back-benchers.
Under its mass conversion to the radical conservatism of identity politics, the UK Left stopped viewing the world from a socialist perspective a long time ago; but its argument — as far as I can follow it — is that Johnson is a professed libertarian and has only been pushed into doing anything at all to oppose this civilisation-threatening virus by the demands of the Labour Party; while his true allies — among whom they number Hitchens, Dolan and Young — represent his real views. As an analysis, this has as tenuous a purchase on reality and logic as the contrary view from the Right, that the Conservative Government and civil service have been infiltrated with Marxists and are instigating a Communist coup under the excuse of protecting us from a virus that doesn’t exist. But what both these views share — what they are both predicated on — is the apparently unshakeable conviction that the modern state — ‘welfare’, ‘nanny’, etc. — is an invention of the Left, and that the Right, by contrast, is defined precisely by its wish to dismantle the state and allow the invisible hand of Adam Smith’s market to tell us what we do and don’t value. From this shared perspective, the Left views the state as protective, communitarian and redistributive, and therefore wishes to expand it through longer lockdowns, more restrictions and harsher penalties; while for the Right, in contrast, the state — as demonstrated precisely by the restrictions justified by the coronavirus — is oppressive, authoritarian and anti-individualistic, and should therefore be dismantled, starting with lockdown. But for both these positions, raised as they have been by the same ‘free-market’ ideologues of neoliberalism, there appears to be no such thing as a right-wing state.
Both these positions rest on a shared misunderstanding — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, on a shared ideological representation — about how capitalism works today, as if we were still in the domestic markets of the Eighteenth and early-Nineteenth Century and the monopoly capitalism of competing imperialist states in the Twentieth Century had never happened, let alone the late capitalism of multinational corporations, globalised markets and liquid capital. This has led ideologues of ‘free-market’ capitalism to denounce the Great Reset as antithetical to the holy grail of capitalist competition, and compare the Brave New World it wants to impose on us to communism, as if Schwab, Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg and the other CEOs of the corporations that monopolise global capitalism were all born-again Marxists.
It’s hard to understand exactly how this perspective can be held by anyone who lives in a world in which the two largest state powers, offering competing but increasingly similar forms of authoritarianism, are the USA and China. One might argue — although I wouldn’t — that China’s state capitalism is the historical realisation of the authoritarianism to which every communist government leads; but it’s hard — I would say impossible — to argue that the USA, whose state apparatus holds a large portion of the globe in its military, political, economic and cultural grip, represents anything other than a form of authoritarianism. On the contrary, I would argue that, even in its waning, the USA disposes of the most powerful state apparatus the world has ever known; and that with that waning its implicit authoritarianism is becoming more explicit, more totalitarian, more dictatorial, as it seeks to hold onto its waning economic power with its waxing military might. With social democracy fast fading into one of the briefer experiments of political history, the right-wing state is emerging before our eyes in a new formation that is perhaps foolishly compared, if only for want of a new term, to fascism. But this, it seems to me — rather than a communist coup by General Secretary Boris — is the historical context in which we should view the coronavirus crisis and the implementation of the regulations, programmes and technologies of the biosecurity state it has justified across the liberal democracies of Western capitalism. So what is the Brave New World this right-wing, authoritarian state is building around, between and within us?
9. Brave New World
In the author’s foreword to the 1946 edition of Brave New World, the English novelist and essayist, Aldous Huxley, concluded:
‘All things considered, it looks as though Utopia were far closer to us than anyone, only fifteen years ago, could have imagined. Today, it seems quite possible that the horror may be upon us within a single century. Indeed, unless we choose to decentralise and to use applied science, not as the end to which human beings are to be made the means, but as the means to producing a race of free individuals, we have only two alternatives to choose from: either a number of national, militarised totalitarianisms, having as their consequence the destruction of civilisation; or else one supranational totalitarianism, called into existence by the social chaos resulting from rapid technological progress and developing, under the need for efficiency and stability, into the welfare-tyranny of Utopia. You pays your money and you takes your choice.’
Half a century later, UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, taught us that the first rule of lying to a country is: the bigger the lie, the more ‘the people’ want to believe it. When his New Labour Government sent the UK to war against Iraq in 2003, Blair lied to us about the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction that didn’t exist, the British media universally promoted these lies, and anyone who disagreed publicly was silenced by the state. But in addition to these lies, we were subjected to a media campaign of images of Iraqis suffering under the rule of President Saddam Hussein and appealing for our help. The result was half a million Iraqi dead, 80 per cent of whom were civilians, 5 million Iraqis fleeing the country, the theft of its oil reserves by Western corporations, the unending War on Terror that has made us all targets of terrorist attacks for the rest of our lives, the progressive erasure of our human rights and civil liberties under the guise of protecting us from terrorism, the political destabilising of the Middle East and the creation of millions of refugees.
In an interview in 2008, the novelist and former spy, John le Carré, commenting on the military response of the US and its allies — including the ever-subservient UK — to the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001, denounced the stupidity of waging a so-called War on Terror by comparing it to a war with which we’re all now familiar. ‘You might as well make war on influenza’, he said. Thirteen years later, that’s the war the governments of Western democracies are waging today under the cloak of COVID-19 — not against WMD-possessing Muslims in the Middle East this time, but in a civil war waged on home soil against their own citizens. And like the War on Terror, its justification is a lie sold to the public by the media in order to terrify us into believing in a threat that does not, and never has, existed. There never was a war between Western liberal democracies and Middle-Eastern military dictatorships, Christian soldiers and Islamic terrorists, Europeans and Arabs. There was, and still is, the war of the military and industrial complex of global capitalism for diminishing global resources. The battlefield has expanded to include the entire Western hemisphere; the prize for the victors is even more lucrative than the oil resources of the Middle East; the new weapons employed, collectively designated by the term ‘lockdown’, are killing even more people than the US military; and the victims now include the lazy, conceited, morally indifferent, politically naïve citizens of Western liberal democracy that have repeatedly voted for their governments to turn the rest of the world into its killing fields. But the aggressors are still the same, and their goals haven’t changed.
The lesson we still haven’t learned from this humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe is that appeals to camera by weeping individuals — then the victims of political oppression, torture and war, now the doctors, nurses and patients in the so-called ‘war’ on COVID-19 — relating personal experiences ‘on the front line’, as the UK Government has designated our hospital wards, are no basis to policy. Doctors have one concern, and perhaps rightly so: the health of the patients in their care. But Government policy must look at the total impact of the actions they set in motion, and the facts from countries around the world show that lockdown not only has no effect on reducing deaths from COVID-19, but that it has been, and will continue to be, the cause of tens of thousands of deaths of those deprived of medical diagnosis, treatment and care under coronavirus-justified restrictions. The question this raises, however, isn’t whether the doctors wheeled out to make appeals to the camera to obey Government Regulations are lying to us deliberately for what they see as a more important cause than truth (the patients under their medical care), whether they are being manipulated by the Government and media into doing so, or whether they are cynically manipulating the public to their own financial benefit and career prospects from the revolving door between pharmaceutical companies and regulatory bodies. I imagine, as with most things, that it’s a combination of all of these, with the more powerful the position occupied, as I have shown in previous articles, the more corrupt the person occupying it. But the question we should be asking is what the perpetual threat of lockdown justified by the medical profession is enabling our technocratic Government and its corporate financiers to prepare for our future.
As its scientific and medical advisors advised it to do last July, the Government gradually forced the entire country into lockdown between the autumn and winter of 2020, and it looks like we will stay under lock and key until Spring 2021 at the earliest — although the Regulations under which the restrictions have been imposed don’t expire until mid-July 2021. By the time we emerge, tier by tier, from our prisons, there will be such mass unemployment, redundancies, poverty, destitution, ill health and despair that the population of the UK will effectively be on a war-footing, ready to be redeployed under the equivalent of martial law (we have been under a de facto State of Emergency for some time). And it’s under these conditions that further regulations, programmes and technologies will be imposed upon us as a condition of our release, and the always obedient population of the UK will do whatever it takes to survive short of rebelling.
I’m neither an economist nor a soothsayer, and I’m reluctant to add my predictions to the despair that is dissolving what resistance there is to the biosecurity state. ‘Terrifying’ has been the response of many readers to my recent articles about the UK’s COVID-19 vaccine programme. But if I risk looking into the future, I’d imagine a system of social credit based on that in China will be implemented on the back of some form of Universal Basic Income. This will essentially be an extension of our current benefits system of Universal Credit, but which will be tied to digital currency and whose ‘awarding’ will be additionally contingent upon our compliance with every demand and requirement of the UK biosecurity state. This will include tracking our every movement, interaction and contact through QR-codes; regularly updating our health status into a centralised data base; annual vaccination made either compulsory or a condition of returning to work; regularly submitting biometric samples for testing; carrying digital health passports at all times in order to access public services like travel, medical care and welfare benefits; the automation and regulation of the home as a quarantine block; mandatory mask-wearing in all public places; payment with blockchain currency programmed with conditions of use and traceable to the behaviour and health status of the user; and, of course, obedient acceptance of whatever new ‘rethink, reskill, reboot’ job the state assigns the millions of unemployed and impoverished workers granted a Universal Basic Income. In case we’re not clear what that will involve, it won’t mean a career in cyber-security, as the Government’s ill-advised propaganda campaign by the National Cyber Security Centre tried to suggest last year with a spectacular lack of success. A more representative job would be a worker operating in tandem with mobile robots to locate, retrieve, sort and package pharmaceutical products in one of Amazon’s new warehouses.
The consequences of any deviation from these obligations and protections will be simple: removal of social credit and basic income, followed, for persistent offenders, by the huge fines we’re already seeing become the norm for the new offences of not wearing a mask, holding a party, leaving your home without a reasonable excuse, or not taking a test when instructed to do so. It’s been suggested that we’re approaching the time when an equivalent to the geo-fencing of satellite-linked livestock systems will be used on humans; except that, rather than an electronic tag shocking us into staying within our allotted boundaries, a universal basic income, linked to our digital identities, will be used to control our access to the basic needs of life, such as housing, food, water and healthcare. If that sounds like science fiction, it was recently announced in Germany that anyone refusing to quarantine will be forcibly detained for ‘testing’ in facilities built for the purpose until such time as the state deems them sufficiently ‘bio-secure’ to release back into society. That Germany, a country obsessed with rewriting its past, should announce such measures shows just how confident the technocrats of the biosecurity state have become.
And the UK hasn’t been slow to follow. While writing this article, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care made The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) (Amendment) (No. 7) Regulations 2021 into law. Under these Regulations, UK travellers returning from or through so-called ‘red-list’ countries from which travel to England and Wales is banned will now face fixed-penalty notices of £1,000 for not taking an RT-PCR test upon 2 days of returning, £2,000 for not taking a second test 6 days later, £5,000 for not quarantining in a hotel room for 10 days upon return or following a positive test during quarantine, rising to £8,000 for a second offence and £10,000 for a third and all subsequent offences; pay for the above tests plus fees of £175 per person for every day quarantined in an airport hotel, effectively banning travel for all but the wealthy and Government officials granted immunity; and, finally, a prison term of up to 10 years for those who incorrectly identify the country from which they’re returning. To put this last punishment in its criminal context, 10 years is the maximum sentence for making threats to kill, possession of firearms, non-fatal poisoning, burglary with intent to commit rape, indecent assault, indecency with children under 14 and rioting; and 3 years more than the maximum sentence for carrying a loaded firearm, racially-aggravated assault and sexual offences involving minors. The significance of these absurdly disproportionate punishments shouldn’t be lost on us. Like George W. Bush’s messianic aide, they tell us loud and clear that the consensus-based reality we thought we knew is over; that this isn’t the way the world works anymore; and that, from now on, the technocrats of the biosecurity state will be creating their own reality.
Legally, all this can already be done already under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and — at the time of publication — the 372 coronavirus-justified Statutory Instruments made into law, 349 of which were made without a draft being laid before Parliament, evidence for their proportionality being presented for debate, assessment made of their impacts or consultation with the public. All the Government is waiting for is the final crushing of the UK population through a winter campaign of terrorism, immiseration, bankruptcy, increased surveillance and fines, and media coverage of spectacles of disobedience and punishment, in which the virtual mob of social media will be encouraged to participate. The recent re-arrest of anti-lockdown campaigner, Piers Corbyn, for distributing leaflets against vaccination; the concerted slur campaign by the BBC, the Guardian newspaper and across social media against the former pharmaceutical industry scientist, Dr. Michael Yeadon, for challenging the medical basis for lockdown; and the BBC’s stage-managed attempt to discredit Jonathan Sumption that produced howls of indignation and denunciation on mainstream and social media — are examples of how ready the UK public is to participate in this climate of witch-hunting and self-righteous indignation. This isn’t dystopian fearmongering; this is the future that awaits us, and so naïve and obedient have we been throughout this crisis that there is now nothing to stop it becoming our present.
It’s important to understand that the removal of our freedoms, the destruction of public services, and the impoverishment and control of millions of workers is not an unavoidable consequence of the New Normal, but rather the scorched earth on which the Fourth Industrial Revolution is being built. Just as happened during the First Industrial Revolution, when millions of agricultural labourers were deprived of access to newly-inclosed common land and forced into a highly regulated life of repetitive labour in privately-owned factories, the working class must first be impoverished before they accept the new conditions of labour and life. And just as the body of the nineteenth-century worker was regulated and regimented by the discourses of hygiene, efficiency and criminality to which factory work and urban life subjected it — governed by the clock, policed by the cop, punished by the workhouse — so the millions made unemployed by the destruction of their livelihoods under lockdown are being subjected to the surveillance, monitoring and control of their biological existence under the regulations, programmes and technologies of the UK biosecurity state.
In this state, in which artificial intelligence is at once policeman, judge and jury, our digitally monitored ‘homes’ will become the prisons in which we will be quarantined should we fail to comply with the obligations of the biosecurity state. At the same time, as is already happening, the home will also be the workplace to which we will be confined until we have met our designated quota of productivity, to be paid in social credit that will — as it already does in China — monitors and controls both the extent and the content of our expenditures according to our compliance with state directives. But the UK biosecurity camp will extend beyond our homes. As the Italian architect and filmmaker, Robin Monotti, said in a recent interview, we are witnessing the formation of a Western Bloc in which travel both within countries and between national borders is either prohibited or permitted only under strictly enforced compliance with biosecurity programmes and regulations constituting a new Iron Curtain. And just as information from beyond its borders was restricted in countries in the former Eastern bloc and Soviet Union, so too the information to which the public in this new Western Bloc has access is being controlled and censored in a manner we wouldn’t have believed possible only a year ago. Above all, the overtness of the propaganda for the biosecurity state, a mixture of saccharine visions of a post-COVID future and violent threats of punishment for non-compliance with its laws, is something we’ve never seen before in this country, not even during the lies of wartime.
From the totalitarianism of this regime, however, comes some cause for hope. Contrary to the beliefs of the COVID-faithful who denounce anyone questioning the medical necessity of these restrictions as ‘conspiracy theorists’, the coronavirus-justified restrictions under which we are living in this Western Bloc are far from universal. Many countries around the world have not imposed them, or did so to a far lighter degree and are beginning to lift them; while other countries, without anything like the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the UK, have imposed equal or even harsher restrictions without medical justification. To those who look beyond the increasingly restricted and inward-looking world shown to us by the corporate-owned UK media, the global conspiracy theory to which these media corporations reduce any challenge to the UK biosecurity state is in reality mostly confined to the Western democracies undergoing this revolution in capitalism. This explains the level of censorship, disinformation and lies to which the corporate-owned media has committed itself. For who would believe in a civilisation-threatening virus and consent to the removal of their rights, liberties and politics in perpetuity, when other countries have returned to something like the social relations and civil liberties they had before this manufactured crisis? This alone indicates that this is a crisis of capital and not of health, designed to increase control of, and not to protect, the population.
But who is looking, and in sufficient numbers, to turn civil disobedience and resistance to these restrictions into a movement that will overthrow this constitutional dictatorship? Not the so-called Left, whose long stupefaction, not only in this country but in all Western liberal democracies, has prepared the way for this moment of total obedience to the authority of the UK biosecurity state. Taking comfort from dismissing this already present future as a ‘conspiracy theory’ is the Left’s way of closing its eyes to what is happening in front of our faces, and to our faces. Its crowning ignominy is that, confronted with the most decisive and long-prepared revolution in modern history to an authoritarian and right-wing state whose presence is now all around us, it denies that it is even happening.
10. The Time Given to Us
In Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics, published in 2019 from the text of his Reith Lectures earlier that year, Jonathan Sumption concluded with this dark and, in hindsight, prophetic warning:
‘Prophets are usually wrong. But one thing I will prophesy. We will not recognise the end of democracy if it comes. Advanced democracies are not overthrown. There are no tanks on the streets, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators or braying mobs. Instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic. The labels will still be there, but will no longer describe the contents. The facade will still stand, but there will be nothing behind it. The rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless. And the fault will be ours.’
When this crisis started, I think most people were genuinely terrified of the virus. Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that, unless you’re over 70 and suffering from cancer or some other life-threatening health condition, COVID-19 holds no danger for you. Or should we say, based on the number of people under 60 without a pre-existing health condition whose deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, it holds about the same danger as death from falling from or on stairs and steps. So for some time now, the COVID-faithful have tried to cover their earlier fears with declarations of altruism about ‘saving granny’ and other Government-invented excuses for their behaviour. But the fear is still there, and it’s growing. But the fear now is not of a virus with a fatality rate equivalent to one of the more severe seasons of influenza. The fear is that that what many people have been saying since the beginning is true: that this is a manufactured crisis, and that to pull it off means a collaboration of the most powerful governments and corporations in the world to create the totalitarian nightmare we’re beginning to see take shape. And it’s this that is terrifying everyone into compliance.
Between a future that will surpass the worst dystopias of science fiction and a viral pandemic that will threaten us for the rest of our lives, the overwhelming majority of people in the UK have chosen to believe in the latter, no matter the absence of evidence for doing so. The extraordinary violence with which the COVID-faithful respond to anything that threatens to dispel this illusion is testament to the strength of their fears. And in a way, I don’t blame them. I wish we were facing something as mild as a civilisation-threatening virus requiring nothing more than mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing, contact tracing, immunity passports and compulsory vaccination to defeat it or even hold it at bay. ‘Just wear the mask!’, as we are told with increasing desperation by those desperate to believe it will do something to stop this terror. But the truth that the majority of people are refusing to believe is that what we’re facing, what is happening right now, and which will only get worse in the future, is far worse. And that really is terrifying.
Recently, I was out drinking with a friend in Peckham. As night fell the mist rolled in, the streets were deserted, the parks cleared, those with a reasonable excuse to have left them returned to their homes, the headlights from the cars dimmed, and the moon rose in a ripple of clouds. I stopped in a supermarket to warm my hands in the heater at the entrance, then we finished a flask of whisky outside the library. The cycle home along the canal and through the park was the equal of any scene from Bladerunner. It’s a strange, alien world out there, populated by automatons emerging from Schwab’s dream of the fusion of humans and digital technology, biology and artificial intelligence: faceless, expressionless, incapable of independent thought, apparently without memory of anything they knew about the world before this crisis, obedient to the commands from the outsourced brains in the tracking devices they call ‘smartphones’. The world we thought we lived in has been stripped away, and the shambles it has revealed is what we truly are as a nation, perhaps as a civilisation. It’s like every billboard and advert has been torn down, and the slave workshop of production behind it has been exposed. The gravediggers of history are upon us, and the smell of decay is everywhere.
Judging by the masked faces in the supermarkets in London, even allowing for the increased obedience of the population in the capital, I’d guess about 90 per cent of the people in this country are still in stern denial about what is happening, that they still believe this vast upheaval really is in response to a virus, that the complete overthrow of everything we knew and thought unchangeable in our lives and society is merely temporary, and that if we just continue to obey what the Government tells us to do — just a little while longer, until Easter, or summer, or the year after that; if we just take the vaccine, wear a mask at all times, upload our biometric data into our tracking devices every week, produce a digital health passport on demand, and all the other programmes of the UK biosecurity state — then one day we’ll go back to that world that no longer exists. Like belief in an afterlife in which all our sins will be forgiven, it must be comforting to live under such a delusion.
But the truth of the world is otherwise. The truth is, that world is over. The truth is that we’re already in a world that is far worse than the disaster we were sleep-walking into before this crisis; that the totalitarian nightmare that is already upon us, even though most of us don’t know it, is our future, and that it will only get worse. The truth is that with every day that passes, while we sit obediently at home waiting patiently for our freedoms to be returned, the building blocks of our prison are being laid around, between and within us, and that there is nothing within our current political and legal system to stop it. There may have been, once, a long time ago; but the institutional structures and political will that might have prevented this disaster have been stripped away and hollowed out by 40 years of neoliberalism.
All we have to do now is decide what to do with the time that has been given us. That time starts now, yesterday, a year ago, a decade ago, with the turn of the millennium, starting tomorrow. It is the time of now, and try as we might to refuse its presence, it is all around us, as palpable as the life we once lived and are now forbidden from living. Recognising this truth, acknowledging the force of the virtual reality that has usurped the world we thought we knew, standing up and facing it instead of cowering in fear, is the first step in resisting and not collaborating in the violence of its vast deception — even if that means no more than refusing to participate in the murder of truth on which it is being built.
I’m not alone, of course, in recognising this, and our numbers are growing as the biosecurity state rises up, enclosing us in a prison that even the COVID-faithful may one day be forced to acknowledge. I agree with Klaus Schwab. We’re in the midst of the greatest changes to our society and ourselves since the First Industrial Revolution nearly two centuries ago; but it’s to anything but the Brave New World to which he assures us we’re heading. To the contrary, we’re being inducted into a technological totalitarianism which, as I’ve written before, will make those of the Twentieth Century look like crude prototypes in comparison. Unless we stop this now — through civil disobedience to coronavirus programmes and regulations, through resistance to their enforcement and normalisation, and ultimately through overthrowing and replacing the political system that has allowed this to happen — the rest of our lives will be lived according to systems and technologies of surveillance and control the like of which even now we can’t imagine, and the lives of our children will be many times worse.
Minerva’s owl has taken wing. The streets of Bladerunner’s abandoned planet look comforting beside the strangeness of Peckham on a winter’s evening under lockdown. What terrors, what horrors, what unimagined shapes have been so rapidly assumed by that dull world we so recently inhabited. How quickly all that was solid has melted into air, all we once held sacred has been profaned — and by our own hands. But when will we be compelled to face with sober senses the real conditions of our life, our real relations to each other? Because it’s to their reality, and not the conspiracy theories of our impotence or the fantasy of return to a world that no longer exists, that resistance to this nightmare will awaken.
Architects for Social Housing
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