'Virus of authoritarianism' may be the hardest to contain

11 MAY 2020

'Virus of authoritarianism' may be the hardest to contain

Charles Sturt University Vice-Chancellor’s Chair of Australian-Indigenous Belonging, Professor Stan Grant Junior, examines whether COVID-19 has shown the world the limitations of democracy.

So we are slowly emerging from hibernation. The lockdown is easing. We can visit friends and family again, albeit in small numbers. Some of us around Australia are back at our favourite coffee shops, even gyms and swimming pools. Schools are open. Some states are slower to act than others but normal is a word we have begun to use again.

Not so fast. Will normal ever look the same? Even if we get a vaccine for COVID-19, another virus has been let loose that may be harder to contain: the virus of authoritarianism.

Buried in his post-Cold War landmark study of democracy, 'The End of History and the Last Man', American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote something that should make us all nervous: "The totalitarian state, it was believed, could not only perpetuate itself indefinitely, it could replicate itself throughout the world like a virus". Fukuyama was writing then about Soviet communism. But swap the USSR for China and that word virus takes on a whole new dimension.

The West has changed

It was the Chinese Communist Party's secrecy and cover up when COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan that gave the deadly disease time to spread. By the time it escaped China's borders it was too late for the rest of us to stop it. The virus attacked our lives, it also attacked our beliefs, where we thought we were strongest: our freedom.

The very thing that had underpinned our democracy was the very thing that could kill us. To stay alive we had to lock down. What would have been unthinkable was now upon us. We were cut off from loved ones. Businesses shut. Jobs lost. Sporting stadiums fell silent. Police have patrolled the streets, people sitting in parks or swimming at the beach were ordered to leave or worse, fined or threatened with jail.

The 19th century philosopher Georg Hegel believed the struggle for freedom was the engine of history. It was Hegel who inspired Fukuyama. Thirty years after the Berlin Wall came down and Fukuyama wrote his book, the West doesn't look so triumphant. The West doesn't look like the West anymore.

We have sacrificed some liberty

These past six weeks we have experienced a little of what life is like in China: monitored, suspicious of each other, the long arm of government reaching into our lives. We would not want Chinese Communist Party-style authoritarianism to replicate itself in our society. As we have been forced to sacrifice some of our liberty, China's President, Xi Jinping, would ask: where is your freedom now?

Of course, we can argue state-enforced restrictions have been necessary and our willingness to comply has helped flatten the curve of the spread of the virus. But is this telling us something else, is this revealing the limits of liberal democracy built on freedom and individual liberty?

Are liberal governments weak in an emergency?

German political theorist and Nazi Party member Carl Schmitt, a critic of liberalism, writing in the 1920s and '30s argued that liberal governments are weak when faced with emergency. The technical nature of liberal constitutionalism — our checks and balances — left it unable to deal effectively with exceptional situations, he believed.

In his book 'Political Theology', Schmitt argued that the sovereign "decides whether there is an extreme emergency". Communist dictatorship, he warned, was better positioned to deal with that exception. Why? Because that dictatorship itself was born out of emergency: revolution.

Top-down state control is in the DNA of communism, as he wrote in an earlier book 'Die Diktatur' (on dictatorship) "everything is justified that appears to be necessary for a concretely gained success". Schmitt was writing against what he saw as the threat of communist Russia.

In his book 'Critique of Liberalism: Against Politics as Technology' political scientist, John McCormick, says Schmitt championed "the fusing of popular sovereignty and emergency powers". It explains how Schmitt fell under the sway of the Nazis, as McCormick says, it reveals "why a particularly brilliant Weimar conservative in fact became a Weimar fascist". To confront Soviet Russian dictatorship, McCormick writes, Schmitt resorts to a "no less malignant definition of sovereignty … nationalist presidential dictatorship".

Our politics change after COVID-19

However odious it is to quote the words of a Nazi philosopher, Schmitt is considered a significant 20th century thinker. His warnings a century ago, lead us to ask today: Is Chinese communist authoritarianism better placed to deal with this emergency? Xi Jinping believes so.

The question for western liberal democracies — Australia included — is: when this immediate COVID-19 crisis passes, how will our politics respond? Does the new normal mean accepting that we must download apps to trace our potential exposure to the virus? Do we surrender our privacy to technology? Should footballers be ordered to have the flu shot before they can play? Do we all have to get the jab before we are allowed to go into work? Where does that end? Does conscientious objection no longer have a place?

These are extraordinary times, whatever normal is it won't be what normal was. Are we losing what has made us so strong? This emergency has reminded us of something else Carl Schmitt said, "sovereign is he who decides on the exception".

Well, sovereignty is back. Globalism is being renegotiated. Where does sovereignty lead? It may be alarmist to suggest we are Weimar Germany on the road to dictatorship, but the China challenge today, like the Russian threat then, will force change upon us. It already has.

China is more powerful now than Russia was then. It is on track to be the biggest economy in the world. It is spreading its influence abroad, all the while cracking down harder on freedom at home. Xi Jinping has made it clear he rejects western liberalism. He boasts of his authoritarian capitalist model.

The West was troubled before COVID-19: weakened from within; politically polarised; mired in culture wars. Serious thinkers had even begun to ask if democracy itself would die. Do we lose what has made us strong; what has been most precious to us?

The great playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a warning against hysteria and suspicion. Where he wrote about theology, let me substitute freedom: Freedom is a fortress, no crack in a fortress may be accounted small.

This article was originally published by the ABC here

Media Note:

For more information contact Charles Sturt Media's Dave Neil on 0407 332 718 or at news@csu.edu.au

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