Henry normally puts his articles up by himself, but it’s not here and this one really gets to the heart of one of the critical issues of our time: ‘Official Socialism’ skulking beneath the cover of Covid. I’ll give you the opening and you can pursue the rest for yourself:
As COVID-19 hit these shores, the country’s medical bureaucrats must have felt like the members of a small and rapidly diminishing cargo cult when they finally glimpsed ships on the horizon.
Propelled onto centre stage, obscure officials suddenly acquired a notoriety rivalling that of ex-royals. With the nation hanging in suspense, their daily reading of the tea leaves received the weight antiquity reserved for the oracle at Delphi, determining whether we could go to work, eat out or travel. And as they lurched between shutting states down and opening them again, most of us, who a year ago could scarcely pronounce “epidemiologist” (much less spell it correctly), quietly accepted their verdict, getting on with life and trusting that governments would do their best.
No doubt, circumstances partly shaped that response. COVID-19 is potentially lethal and relatively contagious; particularly when it first appeared, there were good reasons to fear the threats it posed.
But while it would be wrong to dismiss the public response as irrational, it is clear its extent takes some explaining. Two inter-related trends seem to be at work.
There is, to begin with, a long-term rise in society’s aversion to risk that is apparent not just in social behaviour but in the very words we use. In effect, “security”, as it evolved from the Latin, originally referred not to the absence of risk but to its stoical acceptance as an inescapable aspect of the human condition. In a usage that remained current in most European languages until less than a century ago, to be secure was primarily to be serene: to have the peace of mind needed to face life’s contingencies and ultimate finitude.
Instead, in today’s world, the quest for security involves the demand to eliminate uncertainty, or at least reduce it to the point where the anxieties it causes hardly intrude — and in particular, where death, “the rude touch of the Terrible Surprise” as Philip Roth called it, is cauterised from everyday existence.
I will also give you the last paras which really are worth thinking about:
Perhaps that is the fate the pandemic foreshadows — the “Official Socialism”, which LT Hobhouse ridiculed in his vastly influential Liberalism (1911) as “a scheme for the organisation of life by the Superior Person”. This was, he said, a regime in which “the aristocracy of intellect which fills the civil service decides for each man how he should work, how he should live, and indeed, whether he has any business to be born”.
Good stuff, in theory, Hobhouse went on to add; but, while the “Superior Person’s way may be much wiser, it is not the ordinary man’s” — and the “ordinary man” is quite fond of making his own mistakes, rather than being told to make someone else’s.
One certainly hopes so; yet authority once gained is not readily relinquished. Moreover, comparing our experience, viewed as a whole, to that elsewhere, many Australians might draw the lesson that it hasn’t been as dreadful as all that. With the desire to be cradled from risk as potent as ever, those ships the Superior Persons were anxiously awaiting may indeed have finally arrived.