Yesterday I shook somebody’s hand and felt immediately that I had done something deeply transgressive, if not outright illegal. We have had so many regulations imposed on us recently that it has been difficult to keep up, to know what is permitted and what is not. Thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic, the state has become (even more) what Custine described the Tsar Nicholas I as having been, namely eagle and insect: the former in the ability to overfly the whole of society and take it in at a glance, the latter in its ability to insinuate itself, like a termite in wood, into the finest and smallest details of its subjects’ lives.
Of course, this process started long before the epidemic, which has acted only as an accelerant (as investigators of suspected arson call petrol sprayed in the burnt-down property). I know that there are those who go as far as to claim that the epidemic was a deliberate contrivance on the part of our governors to extend their power over us, but the furthest one can reasonably go is that they seized their chance when they saw it. Believers in conspiracy, however, would rather be the victims of a plot than of chance because plots make the world seem pliable to human will, whereas chance by definition escapes human control. A world pliable to human will, even where malign, is more understandable, and therefore less ontologically frightening, than one in which things happen that no human ever intended to happen.
Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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Will we ever be able to shake hands again without fear of deadly contamination? People – at least those whom I have asked—are divided as to what they think the lasting consequences of the epidemic will be. Some think that everything will have changed, changed utterly, while others believe in the restorative powers of amnesia. According to the former, B.C. will come to signify Before Covid; but according to the latter we shall soon forget everything.
To a certain extent, it depends on who the we is that we are talking about. Perhaps an analogy may be drawn with the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe. Certainly, those who lived through communism at an age when they were capable of laying down memories of it have not forgotten it, in the sense that they are able to call memories of it to mind even if mostly they want to put those memories behind them; but they did not want to pass on those memories to their children, with the result that (so it is said) the children of Eastern Europe have very little conception of what life under communism was actually like.
This failure to pass on the memories has both a good and a bad aspect. The good is that the children are not burdened with a sense of wretchedness; the bad is that the illusions that caused, or at least preceded, the communist catastrophe can arise again, unmodified by either experience of life or knowledge of history. The victory in the Cold War was not nearly as final as we assumed at first.
This is especially so in the likely economic and social circumstances post-epidemic (I assume that there will be a post-epidemic). It will probably soon be forgotten that these circumstances were caused by the epidemic that was nobody’s fault, and will be ascribed rather to the wickedness or incompetence of the governments in place, or to the injustices of the “system” as a whole. There will—or perhaps, more modestly, I should say may—be a longing for a totalising solution to the problems that utopian schemes, such as communism or fascism, seem to offer.
The post-COVID indebtedness of many countries, which has not yet ceased to grow, is similar to that contracted during a world war. I am not an economist, but it seems to me that there are only a limited number of ways of dealing with this debt. The best would be rapid economic growth, such that repayment were not a burden. While not impossible, I suppose, I would not take much of a bet on this outcome. The other ways of dealing with the debt are less pleasing.
The first is repudiation of the debt, à la Argentina: but the economic history of that country does not offer much encouragement to those who imagine that repudiation is the remedy (the Italians, I understand, are considering it, at least a de facto version of it). Holders of debt do not usually take very kindly to repudiation, and the collapse of banks, however much we may dislike them in our daily lives, rarely does much good.
Then there is taxation, but if heavy enough would soon become taxation without a tax base. Few people are so patriotic that they want to work their fingers to the bone to service the national debt or to pay it off, and so long as there is somewhere more propitious in the world for ambitious or enterprising people to retain the fruits of their labour, they will seek it out, leaving the rest to be squeezed even harder. (To close off this possibility is one of the reasons why there have been popular radical economists who propose a world fiscal system. They are, in effect, the new feudalists. For them, Man’s first, and possibly only, duty is to pay his tax.)
Finally there is inflation, that is to say so to debase the currency that today’s mountain of debt will not buy tomorrow’s weekly groceries. Again, this has its attractions for debtors, but not for creditors. The grandfather of a German friend of mine held mortgages as his life savings that soon became less valuable than the matches with which he might have burned the documents recording them. Even less severe inflation has serious effects on human character, and renders such bourgeois virtues as prudence, providence and temperance not merely obsolete but foolish. When money does not hold its value, it is improvident not to buy what you cannot afford: if you wait until you can afford it, you will never buy it.
Repudiation, taxation, inflation: each of the possibilities, or some combination of them, is not without its likely social repercussions, none of them pleasant. And we do not live in times of social resignation or passivity. We have already gone through the revolution of rising expectations and reached that of rising, or risen, entitlements. When something to which one believes oneself entitled is not forthcoming, one is more aggrieved than by living at a far lower level without such entitlements.
An entitlement is swiftly dissociated from the particular circumstances in which it was granted, and floats off into a Platonic realm with no tethers to the merely empirical or contemporary earth. The French expression for it is les acquis, those privileges that have been acquired no matter how, when, or in what particular situation that may no longer obtain. There is a kind of Brezhnev doctrine of les acquis: and just as once a country had joined the communist camp it supposedly could not leave it (Islam and the European Union have similar doctrines of their own), so les acquis do not have to be earned, and earned every generation, but exist independent of anything that anybody does or how anybody behaves.
This is not a recipe for social patience, to put it mildly, especially among the young who are already inclined, perhaps by biology, to impulsiveness and easy exasperation. Moreover, if they have been to university, as a higher proportion than ever of them have, they have probably also been primed to ideological dissatisfaction and to the belief that outrage is the most generous of all human emotions, indeed almost pathognomonic of generosity. To some extent, they may even be justified in their discontent: they have been led down the garden path by their elders for years.
In summary we may say that unfunded government and personal expenditure, which creates the illusion of wealth and social security, necessitates low interest rates, low interest rates favour asset inflation, asset inflation favours the already possessing classes, which in turn leads to social rigidity and frustration down below in the lower reaches of society. Social classes rigidify into castes, and many people become fatalistic without contentment. But fatalism without contentment can undergo a sudden change, the emotional equivalent of a gestalt-switch, and become insensate rage.
Of course, I may be entirely wrong and my gloom about the future (not my own) quite unjustified. But, if we are honest with ourselves, there is a certain pleasure to be had in gloom.