Jun 17, 2020

The Hour of the State or Explosion From Below?

The summer of 2020 will be a colossal sociopolitical experiment
Martin Gurri Visiting Research Fellow

The American people appear to be caught in the grip of a psychotic episode. Most of us are still sheltering in place, obsessed with the risk of viral infection, primly waiting for someone to give us permission to shake hands with our friends again. Meanwhile, online and on television, we watch, as in a dream, crowds of our fellow citizens thronging into the streets of our cities, raging at the police and the established order generally, with some engaged in arson, looting, and violence.

On one side, a reflexive obedience to authority. On the other, a near-absolute repudiation of the rules of the system—for some, of any restraint whatever. The future will be determined by the uncertain relationship between these two extremes. 

As it happens, the future is almost here. With the coronavirus-related sheltering that has shuttered the world coming to an end, we will soon learn whether we are a nation of conformists or anarchists—or an unstable compound of both.

On the surface, it would seem that the answer has already been given. The protests ignited by George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white Minneapolis policeman today command the totality of our attention. The anger and energy of the protesters—their zeal to change the world—will therefore set the tone for the post-lockdown period, particularly when it comes to politics. Racial justice, as defined by them, will become the central issue of American political life. Police forces will be purged or abolished. Donald Trump will be swept out of office by a coalition of the righteous. A revolution will be launched, and that old lion, power, will at last lie down with the lamb.

All of that is possible. None of it, of course, is remotely necessary for at least two reasons. First, we are observing the Floyd protests though the magnifying lens of the information sphere. That instrument absorbs a vast range of opinions and refracts these through a single story, pursued with pathological fixation. This impoverishment of reality creates an illusion of magnitude: the public’s reaction to the death of George Floyd feels like the most important event in a generation. But so did the COVID-19 crisis, previously. So did Donald Trump, for the three years before that. The true significance of the current revolt will be impossible to measure accurately until the information sphere moves on—as it always does—to a new obsession.

Second, there are equal and opposite forces at play, now muted by the lockdown. In his brilliant The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart posits a class of mobile and credentialed “Anywheres” who can dispense even with national borders, colliding against less-educated “Somewheres” who are rooted by class or occupation to a specific spot. Both are unhappy with the present shape of society, but for contrary reasons. Anywheres tend to see racial bigotry, sexual oppression, and xenophobia everywhere. They would wipe clean the past and the present on behalf of a utopian future, and their vision of a sinful world in need of redemption has powered the present unrest.

The Somewheres, however, find the present to be a catastrophic moral and economic decline from past greatness. They wave the flag without irony and detest political correctness. Their hunger for lost glory and old-time values tipped the balance in favor of Brexit and Boris Johnson—Goodhart is British—and got Donald Trump elected to the presidency of the United States.

The pandemic crisis has affected the two tribes unequally. Anywheres are urban managers and office workers. For them, the lockdown has meant spending more time with spouse and kids—a vacation in place. The more dispersed Somewheres might be retail workers, waiters, shop owners, barbers, bricklayers, staff in a movie theater or a gym or a cleaning crew. They have spent the last three months risking their health if they go to work or else staying at home and watching the family savings drain down to nothing.

The amount of permanent economic damage inflicted by the decision to place society in a deep freeze, and the depths of resentment accumulated by hard-hit Somewheres during that time, will not be known until we come out from shelter. Like the ultimate outcome of the Floyd protests, these are question marks floating on a white-water stream of randomness. Before I start to speculate about the immediate future, therefore, I should confess, as an honest analyst, that nobody really has a clue.

But I’ll take my stand on one prediction. The summer of 2020 will be remembered as a colossal sociopolitical experiment on the authority of the state and the revolt of the public.

The Triumph of Government?

About a week before the death of George Floyd, in a virtual chat with two highly perceptive thinkers, I was told, somewhat to my surprise, that they expected the post-pandemic future to be “the hour of the state.” The idea was that governments everywhere had assumed extraordinary powers to protect the public from a fearful threat and that the public would be suitably grateful. While the post-Floyd disorders would seem to have falsified this hypothesis, if we look deeper into the question, beyond the confusion of the moment, I think an argument can still be made on its behalf.

The government’s assumption of power during the pandemic was certainly unprecedented for peacetime. Freedom of assembly, movement, and worship were suspended indefinitely. Governments were quick to compare the situation to a state of war. Trump likened himself to a “wartime president” fighting an “invisible enemy.” Emmanuel Macron, as he mandated France’s lockdown, repeated the phrase “We are at war,” not once but six times. Only the power of modern government, it was implied, could coordinate the resources required for this struggle. Only its immense wealth could “protect hardworking Americans like you from the consequences of the economic shutdown,” as the letter from the White House that accompanied relief checks put it.

With trust in the government in tatters, elected officials wrapped themselves in the borrowed authority of modern science. It was Dr. Anthony Fauci, health adviser to President Trump, who demanded a nationwide lockdown. Macron cited the “absolute priority” given by scientists to eliminating human contact as justification for placing France in an induced socioeconomic coma. Similar reasons were offered across the democratic world.

Temporary powers rarely go away: we last learned that lesson with the war on terror and the Patriot Act. And there’s every indication that COVID-19, like terrorism, will be with us for years to come. Elected governments will enter the post-lockdown period with the knowledge that they can invoke science and the metaphor of war to frighten their electorates into a defensive crouch.

In any case, the command to shelter in place received strong support from the voters. Even during the protests that followed Floyd’s death, the vast majority of us remained obediently at home. Most presidents and prime ministers have had a good pandemic crisis, too. Trump and Macron enjoyed modest (albeit temporary) bumps in popularity. Chancellor Angela Merkel, queen of elites, whose coalition was disintegrating when the contagion struck, has seen her reputation with the German public improve dramatically.

Least commented on but possibly of greatest significance, the most disruptive force in democratic political life—the digital platforms—have been tamed for the duration. Facebook, Twitter, and Google directed users seeking information on the pandemic to established institutions like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Eccentric and noncredentialed opinions were essentially blocked. Once that line is crossed, opportunities for dispensing “authorized” knowledge can only multiply. Information controls justified by concerns about health and safety have already been applied to political opinion. Politicians and bureaucrats, citing the noblest ideals, will push hard to expand this trend.

Anarchy in America’s cities, accompanied by proposals to defund the police, could actually contribute to an “hour of the state” by provoking a law and order backlash that, come November, would favor Republicans and President Trump. This would mean the entrenchment of populist government.

Just as plausible, however, would be an attempt by elites of both parties, led by the Democratic establishment, to divert the protests, the associated cancel culture, and the pandemic power protocols into an irresistible anti-Trump crusade. The strange sight of Mitt Romney protesting in the streets could in this way be explained.

Should this last scenario come to pass, the summer’s experiment will end with the triumph of reaction: that is, with government in the hands of elites who have never ceased to believe in 20th century modes of control as a cure to the dysfunctions of the digital age.

The Roaring 2020s?

There is, of course, another side to the matter, and it begins with some historical context. COVID-19 burst on the scene at the end of a decade of ever-increasing social and political turmoil. For 2019 alone, I have counted at least 25 significant street insurgencies, ranging across continents and political systems. An angry public, organized online, was on the march, eager to smash at the ruling institutions. On this sociopolitical cauldron the artificial lid of the lockdown was, quite abruptly, inserted. It is not unreasonable to suppose that enormous pressure has built up over the last three months, to be released, explosively, the minute the lid cracks open.

The explosion, I believe, could still come in ways consistent with the “hour of the state.” The public has endured severe deprivation in social, economic, and political activity. Blowback might come as an orgy of partying and money-making, with politics largely abandoned to the elites. This may seem unrealistic, given the loud anti-establishment noises emanating from the Floyd protests—but protests can be co-opted, and the public’s true temper remains unknown. Once permitted by the government to leave our homes, we may head for the office and the dance floor rather than riot in the streets.

The post-lockdown world would then resemble the Roaring Twenties, in which—according to a classic account of the period—a generation sought a “return to normalcy” after the rigors of war and the puritanism of Woodrow Wilson, but instead got “a revolution in manners and morals” that markedly loosened both. Another parallel would be Restoration England, once the real Puritans had been seen off. “The melancholy austerity of the fanatics fell into discredit,” wrote David Hume of that transition, and “new motives” were discovered for “mirth and gayety.” In both cases, politics remained firmly in the hands of the establishment.

So it might be that after we gather together once again, the public will prioritize working hard to replenish those exhausted bank accounts, while releasing its tremendous energy in song, dance, wooing, and entertainment, rather than in displays of rage and revolt. An era of conformism in politics and pleasure-seeking in private life could be dawning even as I write these lines.

Revolt on Steroids?

Nevertheless, I would be surprised if the global reset of society failed to encounter massive amounts of political turbulence along the way. The reasons aren’t hard to get at. Turbulence was increasing exponentially when the lockdown was mandated from on high. Why would that expanding pressure dissipate in just three months? Is it likely that protesters in Chile and Hong Kong and Catalonia, seething with anti-establishment fury, would tell themselves after a few weeks of isolation, “We got it all wrong”? Early returns suggest that the answer is no. In the US, in several European nations, in Lebanon, in Hong Kong, a restless public is stirring again.

If anything, the causes of anger and revolt have been aggravated by the lockdown. On the grand theater of the pandemic, the performance of the elites has been visibly hesitant and confused. Elected officials have not, in fact, protected us: tens of thousands have died and many more continue to die each day while politicians and the media spend much of their time engaged in the blame game. Blame will probably redound on all who reside at the top of the pyramid.

The scientist-bureaucrats who are supposed to become the new foundation of government authority have had a terrible crisis—true of individuals and institutions alike. A few weeks before Dr. Fauci demanded a nationwide lockdown, he was rejecting the need to lock down at all. The CDC strongly opposed the wearing of masks by the public but is now strongly recommending the opposite. In France, Dr. Didier Raoult, a vocal critic of his country’s health establishment, embodies an attitude that has been called “medical populism.” Facts have contradicted facts, even as experts contradicted experts, with the same experts, as we have seen, not infrequently contradicting themselves.

The economic devastation, the failure to consider trade-offs, and the unequal distribution of pain will add a layer of despair to the accumulation of pre-existing grievances. It was the public’s lack of trust in the modern bureaucratic state that propelled the original impulse to revolt: the offer of trillions in aid, therefore, will fail to mollify those who believe the game is always rigged against them.

And inequality extends to geography. The densely populated urban centers have been disproportionately afflicted by the contagion and the protests. Yet it’s the urban centers, with their powerful yet oblivious Anywheres, that dictate policy and set the information agenda. So all we can hear is rage about “systemic racism”; all we can see is the collapse of authority of urban politicians who bend a knee to the protesters’ identitarian faith.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes the revolt of the Somewheres that has already given us Brexit and Trump may be about to resume, super-charged by a fresh sense of injury, at far deeper levels of nihilistic rage.

I said that nobody has a clue about what comes next. I also said that summer is practically here. An experiment of gigantic proportions is about to be conducted on the democratic world—and outcomes could be extreme. We’ll soon learn whether the hour of the state is indeed upon us, with modern government restored to top-down, command-and-control authority, or, conversely, whether the public only sheltered at home when it felt afraid and will come out in an explosive temper ready for a fight when it feels ready to do so, regardless of what the government ordains.

We should be paying attention, right now, but let’s talk again in the fall…

Photo Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty

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