Perhaps it’s my age, or perhaps it’s just blind prejudice, but when I wake to the news that the Austrian government has interned an entire third of its national population as a danger to public health, a chill runs down my spine.
I look at the news photos of armed, masked, black-clad police stopping people in the streets to ask for their digital papers, and I read stories of others arrested for leaving their own house more than the permitted once a day, and I hear Austrian politicians intoning that those who refuse to accede to the injection are to be shunned and scapegoated until they acquiesce.
Then I watch interviews with “ordinary people”, and they say that the “unvaxxed” had it coming. Some of them say that they should all be jailed, these enemies of the people. At best, the “anti-vaxxers” are paranoid and misinformed. At worst they are malicious, and should be punished.
Then I look across the border at Germany. I see that in Germany, politicians are also considering interning the “vaccine hesitant”, and are also discussing enforcing vaccination upon every citizen. By the end of the winter, says Germany’s refreshingly honest health minister, Germans will be “vaccinated, cured or dead”. There is apparently no fourth option.
They have been busy in Germany. Recently they put up fences in the streets in Hamburg, to separate the Bad Unvaxxed from the Good Vaxxed at the Christmas markets. Outdoors. Perhaps they will also provide the Good people with rocks to throw across those fences. The mood certainly seems ripe. A cartoon recently published in the mainstream, high-circulation newspaper Frankfürter Allgemeine Zeitung featured a man sitting on his sofa playing a first-person shooter game in which the targets were unvaccinated people. The caption described it as “a big hit under the Christmas tree.”
Not that Germans or Austrians have any monopoly on the current march towards authoritarianism in the name of public health. It is entirely globalised. The opinion recently expressed by Pulitzer Prize-winning American art critic Jerry Saltz to his half a million Twitter followers was typical of a new form of class hatred that is somehow acceptable in the age of cancellations and hyper-sensitivity. “My latest Covid thought is ‘Let her rip:’”, he wrote. “Meaning, we who are lucky enough to be triple & double vaxed are pretty protected. Let the rest die. I know they pose a danger to us all. But we are more than 97% protected from them. If they want to die, I say let them die. Freedom.”
Across Europe and the wider world, the picture is the same. Internment. Mandatory medication. Segregation of whole sections of society. Mass sackings. A drumbeat media consensus. The systematic censoring of dissent. The deliberate creation of a climate of fear and suspicion. The deepening demonisation of the “unvaxxed”. Something terrible is rising around us, and we are only just waking up to it.
I am watching all this from Ireland, the country which has the highest adult vaccination rate in Western Europe, at over 94% of the population. Here, cases are accelerating so fast that we were all told recently to work from home, and another lockdown is widely feared. New restrictions for children, who are least at risk from Covid, are being proposed, and a midnight curfew has recently been imposed on pubs and nightclubs. This is odd, as only vaccinated people have been allowed into them since the summer, with the scan of a smartphone-enabled QR code being the only way to access much of society.
In an honest society, all of this would have been subject to robust public debate. We would have seen scientists of all opinions openly debating on TV and radio and in the press; views of all kinds aired on social media without fear of censorship; journalists properly investigating reports of both vaccine successes and vaccine dangers; serious explorations of alternative treatments; public debates about the balance between civil liberties and public health, and what “public health” even means.
But we have not seen this and we will not see it, for debate, like dissent, is out of fashion. The media here has not asked a critical question of anyone in authority for at least 18 months. Google’s algorithms are busy burying inconvenient data, while the social media channels from which most people receive their worldview are removing or suppressing critical opinions, even if they come from virologists or editors of the British Medical Journal.
What could possibly justify this? One answer might be: the combination of a terrible pandemic which killed or maimed large percentages of those it infected, and the existence of a safe and reliable medicine which was proven to prevent its spread. This, of course, is what we are said to be living through. This is the Narrative.
But it is clear enough by now that the Narrative is not true. Covid-19 is certainly a nasty illness which should be taken seriously, especially by those who are especially vulnerable to it. For the elderly and infirm especially, it can be a serious risk. But it is not dangerous enough — if anything could be — to justify the frightening atmosphere which is rising across the world. The authoritarian response to the virus has become the go-to solution for governments everywhere, and the climate of fear in society as a whole has often meant enthusiastic support for such a response. As the vaccines fail to end the pandemic, new variants continue to arise and every promise of “unlocking” ends with the reimposition of restrictions, so the calls grow for more clampdowns, more segregation, more isolation and internment. With each call, a new roughness comes over the culture.
This roughness is what leads to the persecution, abuse and scapegoating of anyone foolish enough to stick their head above the parapet and question the Narrative, and that in turn leads to more people walking away from those who promote it. The solidarity of the pandemic’s early days already feels like a century ago. Day by day, the combination of breakdown and clampdown eats like acid through the social fabric of a society already riven by a “culture war” that seeks enemies first and understanding very much later.
All of this has descended like a flock of birds on one single technology — “the vaccine” — on which all hopes and fears converge. But the divisions that have opened up in society about the Covid vaccines are not really about the vaccines at all: they are about what they symbolise. What it means to be “vaxxed” or “unvaxxed”, safe or dangerous, clean or dirty, sensible or irresponsible, compliant or independent: these are questions about what it means to be a good member of society, and what society even is, and they are detonating like depth charges beneath the surface of the culture.
In his fascinating Substack newsletter The Stoa, academic Peter Limberg proposes an analysis of the ongoing Covid wars. He identifies two positions on the virus and the reaction to it. Both are generalisations — plenty of people will cleave fully to neither — but broadly speaking, which you identify with will inform your view of who the Other is.
Limberg describes the first position — the Thesis — like this:
Lockdowns are needed to contain the virus, masks work and need to be mandated, vaccines are safe, people should take the vaccine to protect themselves and others, and vaccine passports will help open things up quicker and encourage those who are hesitant to get vaccinated.
The Thesis is the establishment position. It is held, in Limberg’s words, by “legacy media … NGOs, Universities, Western governments, and memetic tribes on the political Left.” In contrast, the opposing view — the Antithesis — is held by a ragtag of political dissidents of all stripes, from rightwingers to anarchists, motivated to cluster for different reasons around an alternative story:
Lockdowns are not needed, masks do not work, the safety and efficacy of the vaccines are being oversold, vaccine passports will not only fail but further segregate society, and in the near future we can expect Giradian scapegoating of the unvaccinated. In other words, we are positioned on the precipice of a slippery slope that leads towards increasingly draconian biopolitical control measures, the grip of which is unlikely to release even once the pandemic is over.
What we see around us now, as the Thesis visibly fails, is more and more people looking around for explanations and landing on versions of the Antithesis. As that happens, more of those who support the Thesis feel threatened and angry. The people questioning the Thesis, to them, are not thinking human beings wondering what is going on and not getting satisfactory answers. They are “conspiracy theorists” and “anti-vaxxers” and “far-Right actors”, whose views will lead to mass death.
In response to this intolerance, the more extreme elements of the Antithesis position dig in deeper, offering up intolerance of their own, condemning the “sheeple” who still cleave to the Narrative, and proposing alternative stories which range from convincing right up to frightening. Some of the worst home straight in on old enemies: ‘the Jews’, as ever, are a popular target. This in turn allows proponents of the Thesis to conveniently represent any opposition to their line as dangerous and worthy of censorship. Fear and suspicion reign. Neither tribe is talking to the other, and each assumes the worst of their opponents.
Take these two positions, electrify them, pour them through the sieve of misery that is “social” media, and you have the current vaccine wars. The rage that swirls around the attitude to the Covid jab is a substitute for something else. Underneath the arguments about whether or not to take a vaccine glides something older, deeper, slower: something with all the time in the world. Some great spirit whose work is to use these fractured times to reveal to us all what we need to see: things hidden since the foundation of the modern world.
Covid is a revelation. It has lain bare splits in the social fabric that were always there but could be ignored in better times. It has revealed the compliance of the mainstream media, and the power of Silicon Valley to curate and control the public conversation. It has confirmed the sly dishonesty of political leaders, and their ultimate obeisance to corporate power. It has shown how ideology, on all sides, can mask itself with the pretend neutrality of “science”.
Most of all, it has revealed the authoritarian streak that lies beneath so many people, and which always emerges in fearful times. In the last month alone, I have watched media commentators calling for censorship of their political opponents, philosophy professors justifying mass internment, and human rights lobby groups remaining silent about “vaccine passports”. I have watched much of the political Left transition openly into the authoritarian movement it probably always was, and countless “liberals” campaigning against liberty. As freedom after freedom has been taken away, I have watched intellectual after intellectual justify it all.
I have learnt more about human nature in the past two years than in my preceding 47. I have learnt some things about myself too, and I don’t especially like them either. I have noticed my ongoing temptation to become a partisan: to judge and condemn those on the other side of the question, to find a tribe I can join. I have noticed my tendency to seek out only sources of information which confirm my beliefs.
Most of all, though, what the Covid apocalypse has revealed to me is that when people are frightened, they can be very easily controlled.
Of all the stories we are watching play out right now, this is the biggest one: the manipulation of public fear to impose unprecedented levels of control on populations. The ongoing nature of the Covid threat — the endless boosters, the endless variants — means there is no end in sight to this “new normal”. Like the War on Terror before it, the control and monitoring of citizens in the name of “public health”, the segregation of the virtuous vaxxed (or, any day now, boosted) from the antisocial unvaxxed, the internet-wide censorship of whatever Silicon Valley labels “disinformation”, and the widespread obedience of the once-mainstream press to an agreed story towards which they clumsily try to nudge their readers — none of this has any sell-by date.
This is the story of the times. Across the world we are seeing an unprecedented claim to control staked by the forces of the state, in alliance with the forces of corporate capital, over your life and mine. All of it converges on the revealed symbol of our age: the smartphone-enabled QR code that has, with frightening speed and in near-silence, become the new passport to a full human life. As ever, our tools have turned on us.
The Covid vaccines, whatever their other virtues, have not prevented transmission of the virus, as governments have now publicly acknowledged. If they had, we would not be where we are. For this reason alone, there can be no justification for systems as divisive and anti-democratic as vaccine passports or lockdowns of the unvaccinated. If we were operating, as we pretend to be, from the ground of reason — if we really were “following the science” — then we would be dismantling these systems at this point. Instead we are moving deeper into them.
We are being herded into a future in which scanning a code to prove you are a safe and obedient member of society may become a permanent feature of life, as unquestioned as credit cards and driver’s licences. We are moving towards enforced mandatory vaccination of entire populations — including children — with potential prison sentences for those who refuse.
The Thesis, if left unchecked, leads straight to tyranny. But the danger of cleaving entirely to the Antithesis is a potential descent into paranoia. Both positions thrive on fear of the filthy Other, who must be destroyed with a barrage of claim and counter-claim, backed up by links to studies about ivermectin or vaccine side-effects.
Limberg puts his hope in the possibility of forging a Synthesis of the two positions. But in order to get there, he says, both sides must discover and inhabit the fears of the other: something which looks less likely by the day. As someone who began this pandemic journey cautiously cleaving to the Thesis, but who has tipped towards Antithesis as the Narrative has unspooled and the dishonesty of its proponents has become clear, I can explain my own fears easily enough.
In a short but momentous two years, we in the West, who have spent decades, if not centuries, lecturing the rest of the world about “freedom”, and sometimes trying to bomb them into accepting it, have abandoned ours without so much as a murmur, and begun enthusiastically scapegoating those who question this path. We who invented this thing called “liberalism” are now burying it, and building on the bare soil some technocratic state-corporate hybrid; a China-style social credit society, centralised, monitored, powered by algorithms, emphatically unnatural and unfree.
We are in a revolutionary moment. Societies are being transformed, with no public discussion and no consent, into a version of a Silicon Valley nerd’s wet dreams. Unless we can reach some form of synthesis soon — unless the sheeple can address the fears of the covidiots, and vice versa — then we risk being blinded to where the real power lies, and what is being constructed around us as we bicker and insult and pontificate.
Covid has been both revelation and accelerant. Now the direction of travel is increasingly clear. Unless we actively refuse it, our future looks like a QR code flickering across a human face forever.