culture, the real world today

Letter from Melbourne: mirror to the post-democratic world

This post is a long letter from the locked down city of Melbourne. I explore – at times between the lines – what had led to the recent international disgrace of Australia’s reputation. It is an essay. All statements are provisional, uncertain attempts to make sense of two troubling questions facing us today. Are we losing our democracies? Have the public health responses to COVID accelerated our loss?

It is a long post. Please forgive me. I will come back to the themes again.

I. “Australia has fallen”

Australia’s weird and W.E.I.R.D. (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) authoritarian response to coronavirus has been making global headlines. As COVID-Zero has deranged the minds of our elites, the world’s perceptions of my country have flipped dramatically.

We were once some faraway place for a sun-drenched holiday, but are now the largest prison on earth, visible from space.

We were once home to an extraordinary crop of Hollywood favoured actors, but are now a talent agency of chief health officers, who, dizzy with fame, earnestly tell their docile populations not to talk to each other, not to catch balls kicked into the crowd at football games, and to believe, contrary to their own facts, that the virus has intelligence and wicked intent and that masses are sick until proven healthy (just assume you have the virus even though less than 0.1 per cent of those tested actually do). And then they spoke, if in a bit of a funk, of the New World Order they were bringing into being.

We were once the loyal, laughing, outer province of the Anglo-American empire of democracy, but are now presented variously as a fascist or communist state, an over-ripe Weimar Germany falling to the Nazis (complete with quarantine camps for the infected or unvaccinated) or a slave state in Communist China’s Belt and Road Rim that is testing its social credit scheme.

There has been no shortage of absurd statements and chilling actions to justify this change of perception, and many are perfect for satire, comedy and ridicule, even if they are outlier events, that ordinary people in this besieged city shrug off with some grumbles about ketman and Czelaw Milosz. We have seen dogs being shot, people told to drink beer through masks, and someone who sneezed in a lift being hunted down like a fugitive.

More menacingly, we have seen protestors, including children, being shot with pepper spray and rubber bullets. At the iconic corner of Flinders Street station, Melbourne’s dull postcard gateway to its bluestone grid of shops, black-armoured riot police-soldiers faced off at protestors who called for an end to lockdowns and the arbitrary rules of our new COVID-safe tyranny. One of the officers was filmed taunting the protestors, “Come at me, you pussy.” Another shot a pelt of pepper spray, the panic in his face visible with an obedience mask pulled down to his chin. The police later enlisted an hysterical media to denounce the protestors as enemies of the people. When the protestors responded by publishing the names of the miscreant police officers, the police state, acting within its emergency powers, arrested the dissidents.

While these events occurred the hashtag #AustraliahasFallen was briefly allowed to trend by the local servants of the social media oligarchs. It captured a mood among a small marginalised group in the population who had the courage to refuse to live in the lie. Australia had indeed fallen. The truth is Australia had descended into something other than democracy – most acutely in my province of Victoria, home of the secret ballot and cradle of liberal democracy in the nineteenth century.

All sorts of public health orders were declared, but the reasons and the evidence supporting these regulations never released. For heaven’s sake, children’s playgrounds were closed, and then worse, the rules enforced by signs and barriers and petty tyrants. Why? Because the Chief Health Officer had noticed some non-compliant behaviour. Parliaments have been shut down on the basis of letters from minor officials, and seeming authoritarianism cheered on by journalists auditioning for totalitarianism. They say totalitarianism is the forbidding of questions – and regrettably Australia’s media have been the strongest proxy police to enforce that prohibition

The hashtag – #AustraliahasFallen – was a cry for help to the outer world we in the Great Southern Land are now forbidden to travel to. Like subjects of Eastern European communist states, we sent out messages on our new samizdat to America and Europe to free Australia from tyranny. Oh to be Copenhagen today.

So when the messages were first noticed by the likes of Tucker Carlson there was a sense of relief from the locked down, isolated and quarantined dissidents of Australia. It gave succour to the silenced, courage to the ostracised, and purpose to the persecuted. Laughter, mockery and sarcasm are among the residual powers of the powerless. When we chroniclers of a besieged city saw Tucker laugh and mock, we heard Zbigniew Herbert’s words

he watches from the window
as the sun of the Republic
sinks towards the West

not much is left to him
really only
the choice of an attitude
in which he wishes to die
the choice of a gesture
the choice of a last word

zbigniew herbert, mr cogito on upright attitudes

But after a while, the stories began to grate. Perhaps just like America and the dissidents of Eastern Europe, these media figures did not bother to learn what was really happening in Australia, what were our real concerns, what was our real experience. In complete ignorance of the situation and history, they spouted off with their narcissistic cultural obsessions. In one case a respected conservative outlet, The Federalist, set an intern to write a piece that claimed that Australia’s democratic self-defeat was due to giving up our guns…. WTF? That was in 1996, and no-one in Australia thinks that makes any sense at all.

Big media like Fox and independent media like Tim Pool repeated silly stories, and never bothered to ask about the facts. They just traded cartoonish misunderstandings, counters of self-obsession. Our enslavement was being exploited for news entertainment, whether on news media or social media. Our democratic catastrophe had become yet another ephemeral piece of clickbait.

And it is doing more harm than good. Each time it happens the local media and the authorities jump on the distortions and present Australians who want to live in truth, freedom and civil society – not a medical tyranny of COVID-safe practices – as conspiracy theorists, far-right nut-jobs, or cruel libertarians inspired by Ayn Rand’s madder moments. As Australians used to say when playing two-up: come in, spinner.

Some people have objected. Claire Lehmann from Quillette commented on the distortions presented in the global media, and tweeted “the vast majority of people tweeting about Australia don’t actually care about us, but are instead using impressions of what is going on here to further their own domestic culture war interests.” Others from our new virtual Union of Soviet Writers, like Josh Szeps, have been more defensive of the covidocratic regime, responding to Australia’s “viral moment” with “essential context for American followers and interested Aussies” that makes it all sound like a progressive COVID Zero heaven.

Others can make the corrections – especially to the misreading of our blight as a deviation from American institutions and ideas – but I would still like to thank the media of the world for drawing attention to the situation in Australia. Things are very serious here indeed, especially in the state in which I serve as a lowly under-castellan, Victoria. There is a mental health crisis. We have endured a state of emergency since March 2020. It reminds me in some ways of the Eastern European communist states whose dissidents I studied in my youth. They pretend to lead, and we pretend to follow. Normal rules of government decision making have not applied – like Cabinet processes, cost-benefit assessment, regulatory or social impact assessments, consultation with the affected, open deliberation on alternatives in public forums. We have pursued a progressive, bureaucratic and medical utopia of COVID Zero at stunning cost. It is really something that should never happen again, and hopefully, at the right time in the right way by the right people, will be deeply investigated and reflected on. In the meantime, Gigi Foster’s book, The Great COVID Panic: what happened, why and what to do next can give us both insight and perhaps a start towards a better way.

I have made comment on the pandemic situation on this blog before in posts on Public Health Rulez, OK?, From here to immunity: charting COVID from pandemic to endemic, The failure of institutions in the pandemic crisis, Dr Cogito endures Melbourne’s fifth lockdown, and Cease the endless war against the virus. I have also briefly written on the concept of post-democracy in The post-democratic society is here, but this post had more reference to the global situation without much specific reference to my own polity. Dear reader, please understand that when I write these words, this polity in which I dwell is trapped in a state of emergency with normal rules and conventions of civil, open society suspended. I am constrained in what I can say, but determined to live in truth, even if that may be written between the lines. Even saying what I have done may be considered dangerous. If I am prosecuted or disappeared or ostracised or otherwise punished, the regime reveals its teeth to me.

II. Australia is a mirror to the post-democratic world

But the world needs to understand that what is happening in Australia is not over, and is not only about Australia.

I would invite the world not to indulge in panic porn and so spread one of the very viruses that has disabled our democracies. Rather, dear outside once-free world, please view Australia as a mirror to the world. There you see, reflected in surgical light, the common suffering of our post-democratic societies. There you see the flaws of your own republics in distress. We in the Southern Ocean are not waving. We are drowning. A few brave lifesavers are ringing a bell of rescue. But ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

What are the features of this post-democratic world? It is, I confess, an imperfect term, gesturing more to coming after than defining what it is. The term comes from a book by Colin Crouch, and there is a certain level of academic discourse on it. A 2021 video features Crouch discussing his idea of post-democracy, and how trends have since intensified. In Coping with Post-Democracy, Crouch wrote:

A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite.

Crouch identifies four essential features of post-democracy.

1. Democratic forms persist without meaning or real effect. There are elections and other forms but they meet the letter and not the spirit of the law.

2. All the major forms of democracy or political institutions are hollowed out:

  • democratic assemblies
  • open law making and executive action
  • elections
  • public deliberation and debate among informed citizens
  • protections of liberties and minority rights, especially freedom of conscience and speech
  • “separation of powers” – a legal-rational state apparatus subordinated to the democratic assembly, impartial judicial system, and political executive
  • rule of law – all powers constrained by public law, open scrutiny and social conventions.

3. Disconnection of political actors from the lifeworld of ordinary people, resulting in the relationship with the “punters” being characterised increasingly by manipulation.

4. The corruption of the elite, the loss of its separation and integrity distinct from private interests – the loss of the sense of focus on the public good, the republic. In Crouch’s analysis this entanglement of public and private focuses very much on business relationships with politicians, and his prime examples are privatisation, deregulation and the dominant neo-liberal economic policies of the last 40 years. But increasingly this entanglement without blatant corruption affects other elites: all manner of experts, media commentators, high-profile journalists, university thought leaders, consultants, and the kind of community celebrities and entertainers who are paid to lend their brand to government and political advertising campaigns.

And in the era of COVID this soft corruption of the experts has been exposed in medicine and science, formerly pure exponents of just truths. John Ioannidis has recently published an important article, “How the pandemic is changing the norms of science” that explores the disastrous impact on democratic public health of this blind enthronement of “following the science.”

Politics had a deleterious influence on pandemic science. Anything any apolitical scientist said or wrote could be weaponized for political agendas. Tying public health interventions like masks and vaccines to a faction, political or otherwise, satisfies those devoted to that faction, but infuriates the opposing faction. This process undermines the wider adoption required for such interventions to be effective. Politics dressed up as public health not only injured science. It also shot down participatory public health where people are empowered, rather than obligated and humiliated.

John ioAnnidis, “How the pandemic is changing the norms of science

This disaster of public health obligating and humiliating the people it could have empowered may take years to recover from. It is essential to the malaise we are suffering from, and yet is not unique to COVID but reflects a more general way of doing things in the post-democratic political order, including in the multiplex of research and science.

I would add three features of post-democracy to those described by Crouch.

5. Media/theatre state. The great anthropologist coined the term “theatre state” to describe Bali in the 19th century. A “theatre state” is governed by rituals and symbols rather than by force. It aims not for tyranny, conquest, or effective administration, but rather spectacle. In our emerging media/theatre states, the spectacle is performed on TV, radio and digital media, and it becomes a new form of pomp, the hyperreality and simulacrum that Baudrillard and the situationists anticipated. In the post-democratic society, the reality of power and political legitimacy is not discoverable outside the entangled worlds of media and political spin. Politics has simulation; the real and the imaginary have been absorbed into the symbol. And COVID was the perfect drama for this performance of the caring state and responsible media, keeping us all safe.

6. Degraded institutions. This media/theatre state has replaced strong moderating public institutions. All institutions are raided by parasitic performers. As Yuval Levin argues, it is not just the media in which performance has come to dominate. All institutions now , in Levin’s view, have become platforms for the performance of a personal brand. They do not perform their deeper purpose as cloistered schools in a virtuous life. So much more could be written on this topic, and I have previously commented on the topic in my podcast episode six, The true history of the bureaucracy gang and episode seven, The ordinary virtues of governing well. But for this post let me just quote Levin on the destructive force of institutional leaders performing in social media:

The argument of the book is about the importance of institutions as the formative structures of our social lives and therefore of ourselves. Social media, when seen through that lens, and as it now presents itself, is just a profoundly destructive force. It disintermediates: it pulls people out of institutions that are fundamentally mediative institutions, puts people on platforms by themselves, and asks them to participate, basically passively, in acts of affirmation and peer pressure. It just puts on the table some vague, shallow notion and says to everybody, “Thumbs up or thumbs down.” That’s just an awful way to mediate our social existence as a society. And the more of that social life that we channel through social media, the worse we become.

yuval levin, Our post-pandemic institutions: A conversation with Yuval Levin

7. Cultural and social fragmentations degrades the sense of belonging to an “imagined community” coterminous with the state. Finally, as Benedict Anderson famously wrote, a nation state was formed not just by government institutions but by the “imagined community” of a nation formed by mass media and other cultural practices. In a world of time-shifted streaming, filter bubbles, and the attention economy, our cultures and societies are fragmenting. We have not yet discovered how to form virtuous republics to serve these fragmented states. Again, I could say more, but will keep it elliptical here in this already over-long post. I have addressed this topic in previous posts – Cultural fragmentation and the collapse of authority in Western democracies – and in my podcast, such as episode 12, Towards the Society of Islands.

These are fragmentary ideas of an essayist without institution. Perhaps some more disciplined scholar can bring all these fragments together into a more comprehensive picture of post-democracy. But I think it is clear enough this far into the pandemic, that the last ten years of teeth gnashing about the threats to democracy from either neo-liberalism or Donald Trump have been deadly distractions. This post-democratic virus can infect us all, living as we do in compromised bodies, without the vaccine of strong institutions. Post-democracy does not refer to particular political movements or ideologies. Populism is not the problem. Nor is progressive millenarianism, even with its fashionable revolutionary “woke” overtones. These political phenotypes have dwelt in thriving democracies for a long time. They are long-standing, and can be at times destructive, at times creative impulses. The problem today is they are no longer moderated or housed by shared responsible institutions.

All these characteristics lead to a parasitic elite feeding off a dying body politics. Democracy has become government of the elites, for the elites, by the elites, with few obligations on the elect. The people watch the spectacle as in the Hunger Games, but have little or no effect, unless they choose to be among the cheering fans in the stadium, including the new phenomenon of the covidizens.

III. COVID, post-democracy and the rise of the covidizen

We cannot understand the course of the last year without first understanding that COVID attacked weakened democracies.

COVID arrived in a weakened, immuno-compromised body politics.

It incited existing inflammations and infections – degraded elites, rampant technocracy, hollow institutions, miscreant universities, a poisoned public sphere, millenarian progressivism, and resentful populism.

It attacked post-democracy at its weaknesses, suspended the normal checks and balances, the traditions of institutional moderation, and enthroned government by diktat, based on public health advice, following the science, but really driven by manipulative strategies of fear, dressed up for respectability as “behavioural insights”

Parts of the unique path taken by Australia reflected the particular context of the spread of the disease and our institutions here. This context exacerbated our vulnerability.

We are an island nation whose borders presented a high sea wall against the early waves of the pandemic. This natural advantage allowed for early success as Europe and America burned, but it trapped our leaders, officials, media, epidemiologists and zealots in a gambler’s curse. The first wave never really came to our shores, just like the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. The advocates of COVID Zero, however, mistook this random event in the spread of a microscopic RNA virus around the globe for a determined outcome which they attributed to their policies of going hard and going fast. It created an illusion of control. They made an attribution error, assigning an event outside their control to their agency. The gamblers have been losing money on this same bet ever since.

There is also a contingency that I think was important to the political dynamics of the federation and the psychological state of the citizenry. COVID came to our shores just weeks after the extraordinary fires of the summer of 2019/2020, which captured global attention and provided a stage for state premiers to be community saviours everyday on the news. The pandemic immediately followed the great fires. It channeled the same social psychology for the leaders in politics and public health, and became a rolling emergency used for political theatre. In particular, state leaders (who in the Australian federation primarily have the emergency powers and are responsible for the institutions of police, public health and emergency services) pitted themselves against the national leader. They sought the crown of the Great Protector.

The world of public health also proved susceptible to the strain in progressive ideology of millenarianism, described so well in Yuri Slezkine’s House of Government: a Saga of the Russian Revolution. This strain fuelled the COVID zero fallacy, and I have hinted at it before as in my post, Public Health Rulez, OK?. I will not explore it in detail here.

But this fuel fanned flames that were burning all around the world, not only in Australia. They activated the authoritarian instinct that dwells in progressive minds. But more than that, they energised a desire to mobilise around a new imagined community. In a recent episode of The Rest is History podcast the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Marc Andreesen comments that digital media has created new potential to mobilise dispirited communities. In ways, some of the extremes of recent politics reflect this. But more powerfully the pandemic provided our theatre politics, media and social media a rare opportunity to mobilise people into a sacred, life and death struggle together with the rest of the community. But they came together as an imagined unavowable community. Not as citizens, but as covidizens.

It was the covidizens who took to heart the endless banal urgings that we are more together by staying further apart.

It was the covidizens who watched the daily press conferences, and pronounced on twitter on the poorly analysed case numbers.

It was the covidizens who followed the pronouncements of epidemiologists and media doctors.

It was the covidizens who turned themselves into data scientists and conversed about R numbers and delta variants.

It was the covidizens who stood outside their homes to clap the NHS in the United Kingdom.

It was the covidizens who posted “vaccies” of themselves getting the shots

It was the covidizens who dutifully banned their own children from visiting their homes.

It was the covidizens who denounced covidiots, who reported breaches, and who sheltered in place.

It was the covidizens who most religiously practised the new rites of social distancing.

At some point this imagined community will fade and the spectacle of the pandemic will no longer carry on. The question our post-democratic states will face then is whether the pandemic was an unique circumstance allowing for the mobilisation of this community for unwitting authoritarian purposes, or whether a new cause will be found. Or indeed, whether our weak moderating institutions can ever recover sufficiently to resist the next wave of communitarian infection.

IV The broken mirror of democracy.

The collapse of democracy in Australia has been frightening, but leaves us all with a difficult task.

We are a warning to the world only because we show the shared fate of the world.

America, we know, wakes each morning and asks: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the finest democracy of all?

The world should know that we Australians once said that here – home of the secret ballot, one of oldest continuous democracies in the world. But no longer. Nor can we securely say that of America, that failed state. Perhaps Denmark and Sweden are closer to the truth.

Alas, there is an old superstition that to break a mirror will bring many years of bad luck.

The spell of democracy is broken.

The mirror on the wall is shattered.

We need to learn to see our political world, our social institutions, our cultural freedoms as they really are, not any longer trapped in the spell of this mesmerising tradition.

As John Dunn, eminence grise of political theory, said in Breaking Democracy’s Spell:

In essence, democracy is above all a formula for imagining subjection to the power and will of others without sacrificing personal dignity or voluntarily jeopardizing individual or family interests.”

John Dunn

Who can say they have not sacrificed their personal dignity when they walk around a lake concealed behind a useless mask that only advertises obedience to the public health rules? Who can say they have not voluntarily jeopardized individual or family interests when they cannot attend the death of a parent, a funeral of a friend or open their business like the supermarket full of people just down the road? Truly, COVID has broken the spell of democracy.

John Dunn also wrote that the spell of democracy is not capable of handing the great collective problems of human societies today. It is both an “intellectual embarrassment” and “a clear and present political threat… increasingly likely to prove a biological disaster.” He was thinking of climate change; he may have just predicted a pandemic, likely initiated by the misadventures of American funded research in a Wuhan lab. Dunn went on to write:

“One product of the professionalized and commoditized politics in the democracies of today and the division of political labor in which these result is the pseudo-democratic authorization in that world of the huge bulk of overt public decision that even purport to carry democratic authorization, and the unremittingly pseudo-democratic authorization of the entire structure of of covert or inadvertent decision and nondecision within which those overt decisions next. In this setting, the predication of democracy has become overwhelmingly sedative and disinformative.”

Dunn’s book was published in 2014. In 2020 the mask fell from this pseudo-democracy, and the challenge facing the world is how to deal with the reality so exposed. What comes next I do not know. All I can see ahead of me is the need to act in our shared governments in a belief that politics is practical ethical action (Havel), and to leave behind the zeal of the covidizens.

When asked what makes a good diplomat, Talleyrand said “an absence of zeal”. The same might be said of good governments. It is certainly true of public health officials. It is surely time to oblige these officials to curb their zeal, to strip them of their and to allow greater public institutions, the remnants of our democratic institutions, to shape them into a more virtuous way of public life.

* Thanks for reading this long and involved post. It is deliberately indirect at times, but I hope not too obscure.

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