A LIBERTARIAN HERO IS SOMETHING TO BE (IN THE TIME OF COVID)
1st November, 2020
We are all only too familiar with the noisily performative virtue and affected postures of outrage and solicitude of the liberal left. Their self-dramatising roleplaying has been thoroughly explored and anatomised. It has been informative then, and a little surprising, to observe a mirroring phenomenon emerge on the, not ‘far,’ but further right. This is where the libertarians* dwell and it is the Covid emergency that has exposed their behaviour. Like a plot twist in a thriller where a character seeking to conceal something has been wrong-footed by thinking they saw something that didn’t actually happen they have given away their nature unnecessarily.
The most notable thing about the Covid emergency is that it has confounded all attempts to find easy solutions to it. There is no clearer indicator of this than the conflicting positions taken up by scientists regarding what is for the best. This has felicitously created a vacuum of certainty. I say felicitously because all sorts of people, trying too hard to reassure us of the firmness of the grasp they have on it, have overreached and fallen into the void, exposing their petticoats to us as they fall. In this way Covid has acted like an accidental public exorcism of all the demons of latent paranoia lurking in the libertarian psyche.
Libertarians of a certain complexion were wrong-footed by Covid for the following reason. For years they have correctly identified and battled the threat to freedom represented by an increasingly illiberal left. Movements like Extinction Rebellion and, more recently, Black Lives Matter only confirmed how right they were to fear the dangers inherent in their barely concealed and creeping Marxism. Then, out of the blue, came the entirely novel Covid emergency. Surely, the libertarians thought, this was the endgame of the left, the screen behind which George Soros, Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum would execute their plan to conduct ‘The Great Reset’ whereby a Chinese-style, cashless, surveillance state would be imposed on unsuspecting populations by the big corporations. Suddenly they felt they were on the set of an episode of Black Mirror or of a political thriller as the sum of all their fears emerged unequivocally into the open. Or had it? Were they judging this right? Stringent, government-imposed lockdown measures, regarded from a certain angle, looked like a Fascist/Stalinist duck so surely they must be a Fascist/Stalinist duck?
Suddenly the populist hero, Boris Johnson, who had won the biggest prize for libertarians since World War 2, in the shape of a Brexit which he fought tooth and claw to see through, morphed into Schrödinger’s Johnson. He was, somehow, simultaneously, the hero of the 2016 Referendum who smashed his way, Hulk-like, out of the Dead Parliament on the way to an 80 seat Tory majority and a nouveau Stalinist hand in glove with the big tech villains intent of stealing our freedoms for ever from under our noses. The libertarians hardly noticed the spectacular act of Doublethink required to see things this way. The possibility that Boris is a Classic British Liberal who is sincerely imposing the Covid measures against his better instincts was hardly even considered.
So why are libertarians so ready to jump to the conclusions that they do regarding the Prime Minister’s motivation? Why are these muggers so happy to be so Jekyll and Hyde – cheerfully and, perhaps, ungratefully relieving him of the golden trophy of Brexit thank you very much while kicking him in the crotch for his incipient Stalinism? The answer has to be that in the society of the spectacle we now all inhabit the temptation to bravely flex their biceps, shake their fists at da man and bare their hairy chests in a Hollywood screenplay proved to be irresistible for them. Proper discernment was simply abandoned to the extent that they just don’t care whether Boris’s measures (which, of course, may well prove to have been over-reactions, but only in retrospect) were informed by real Stalinism. To admit that it may not be and that all will revert to normal to Boris’s enormous relief in time would be to relinquish the role offered them in their heads by Central Casting.
As a result we witness the biggest irony of all. We see right-wing libertarians joining forces with the likes of Owen Jones and levelling at Boris Johnson exactly the same accusations of Fascism as those levelled at him by the left liberals. The latter, of course, are cynically using the opportunity provided by Covid so badly do they want to bring him down before he has the chance to govern in normal times. One wonders if this weird and accidental alliance will succeed and, if it does, what better replacement, right-wing ace-in-waiting the libertarians think they have up their sleeve.
Real liberalism of the Classic British kind can only operate as one very necessary side of a conversation with authority we depend on to rescue us from endless conflict. The problem with the brand of libertarianism I describe is that it is absolute and contextless recognising freedom as the highest good and the only context available. It floats free, untethered from any conversation. In this sense it fluctuates between the obsessively monomaniacal and the creed of an adolescent hippie. The idea of returning to a version of Rousseau-esque noble savagehood is a nonsense for a modern citizen who depends on the dustmen and Policemen his taxes pay for.
The ability to make subtle distinctions – between, for example, real Stalinism and non-Stalinism is a marker of intelligence and good judgement. The problem is the libertarians don’t want to make such deflating distinctions that would save them making the identical mistake to that made by American liberals on the left who brand Donald Trump as a Fascist. They need this narrative to be what they are and that is something they don’t want to give up.
*To avoid confusion – a friend tells me that, in America the term ‘Libertarian’ can be used in two ways. Firstly it can be a helpful term used to stand in for Classic British Liberal and discriminate it from the modern kind of so-called ‘Liberal’ who is usually, in fact, a big state socialist. Secondly it can be used to mean a radical idolator of freedom. In this article I am using the term to mean the latter.