Emergency rule nurtures voluntary servitude…
From frontispiece to Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse, 1651
It’s safe to say that citizens are getting inventive. They petition governments and crowd source funding and support for the hungry and harassed on Twitter, convene social gatherings and drinking parties on Skype, and meet and get married on Zoom. But equally striking – truly shocking – is just how little organized public resistance there is to the near-universal declaration of martial law.
Matters aren’t helped by the silence and compliance of pundits who justify the clampdowns using language drawn straight from the classic works of anti-democracy. Sadly typical is the way a Cambridge University professor spins love of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) for its insight that ‘the essence of politics’ is that ‘some people get to tell others what to do’. David Runciman adds: ‘Under a lockdown, democracies reveal what they have in common with other political regimes: here too politics is ultimately about power and order.’
Such justifications of emergency rule are both dangerously naïve and ignorant. Unless they are resisted, concentrations of arbitrary power always display a definite stickiness. As temporary measures, they easily become permanent arrangements. Power granted is power conceded; and power relinquished is power reclaimed with difficulty. Emergency rule gets people used to subordination. It nurtures voluntary servitude. It is the mother of despotism and, as Percy Bysshe Shelley observed in Queen Mab (1813), arbitrary power, ‘like a desolating pestilence’, strangely resembles the virus it claims to combat.