Call me a cynic or an anarchist, but these days I find it impossible to trust anything which comes to me with a seal of authority stamped upon it. I’m not defending this as a healthy response. But it is an increasingly common one, even — and perhaps especially — among people who were trained from birth to follow the rules.
I was once one of those people. I’m a lower-middle class, suburban British bloke from Generation X, who was brought up to believe that the system broadly worked and was mostly fair, at least for people like me. The government did its best, though sometimes the wrong people got in; the police were here to help; there were career ladders and housing ladders, and if you worked hard and behaved responsibly and paid your taxes, then society would reward you for it.
Of course, this was a partial story, as all stories are. Plenty of people would have cackled cynically at it from the start, while others, including me, disabused themselves of it by degrees. I spent 30 years writing about the degradation of nature and culture by the state-capitalist technocracy that governs us, so I imagined I was a hard-bitten realist. But the last few years taught me that I was still too naive about the mythic “social contract” with the state that I apparently entered into at birth, despite having never signed a thing.
As I say, it’s not just me. The loss of faith across the West in our institutions, leaders and representatives in recent years has been radical. When, I wonder, did that contract expire? Maybe in 2003, when the lies with which the Iraq war was launched were so blatant that even those telling them seemed unconvinced. Or maybe later, in 2016, when Brexit happened and Donald Trump happened and European “populism” happened, and suddenly any opposition to liberal globalism became fascism or bigotry or the work of Russian bots.
But it was the pandemic — or rather, the response to it — that changed everything for me. I hadn’t been prepared see, in my allegedly free and democratic country, a merger of corporate power, state power and media power in the service of constructing a favoured narrative, of the kind which had previously only characterised totalitarian regimes. What the Covid regime brought home to me was that I had not, despite what I believed, really understood the real nature of power until I saw it exercised in its raw form over my life. Specifically, I had not understood the power of the state.
Nothing has the power or reach of a modern state. Its sheer scale and strength gives it the ability to corral, organise, define, measure and control its population in a manner that is unmatched in human history, and that power only grows and deepens. The momentum of a state is always towards the centre, always towards the agglomeration of more power. A state is like a black hole: at a certain point, it begins to suck in everything around it. As it grows, it will tell stories that justify its existence. Democracy, liberty and progress are some of the more recent banners beneath which state power has gathered, but there have been others: racial or ethnic homogeneity, human equality, religious purity. All of these stories have the potential to unite a people around a state core.
What happens, then, when large and powerful states, along with the transnational institutions and corporations they promote and protect, are all driving towards the same goal: the universalisation of an American-style “global economy” and its associated culture? This has been the story of the world since 1945, and the result is the world’s first truly global system. The expansion of this system has created problems — ecological degradation, social unrest, cultural fragmentation, economic interdependence, systemic fragility, institutional breakdown. The system has responded with more expansion and more control, growing bigger, more complex and more controlling.
Modernity can best be seen as a system of enclosure, fuelled by the destruction of self-sufficient lifeways, and their replacement with a system of economic exploitation, guided by states and exercised by corporations. The disempowering of people everywhere, and the deepening of technological control, is the inevitable result, and the pandemic overreach will not be the last example. So what is the correct response to the problem of power, and the reach of the state? Avoid it? Hide from it? Confront it? Ignore it? All of these? Or something else? Can we escape the state and live differently? If so, how?