Things are not going to get back to normal. The political and psychological changes wrought by COVID-19 will last long after the virus has faded. The world into which we emerge from the lockdowns will be poorer, colder, grayer, more pinched, more authoritarian. A collective threat of any kind, or at least a perceived collective threat, throws us back onto our most primal instincts. We become more hierarchical, less tolerant of descent, more demanding of the smack of firm government. We’ve seen it the world over. People have not just acquiesced in the abandonment of their freedoms – they have demanded it and they have become aggressive towards anyone who they perceive as an outrider.
A parallel in a way can be drawn to the changes that followed the Second World War. In this as in others countries, powers that the state has seized on a supposedly contingent during the mobilization were not returned when peace was restored. After 1945 Britain had emerged victorious, and yet we had identity cards until 1952, we had food rationing until 1954, we had full male conscription until 1960. And when we look at the economic controls that were supposedly put for the war effort we find that in fact they in many cases they lasted until the thatcher reform until the 1980s. Indeed, in some cases, in elements of healthcare and education, we have them still today.
We are a tribal species. We evolved in kin groups. We have a natural predilection for hierarchy, for being told what to do. Look at the monarchical impulse that runs not only through our fairy stories but even through our science fiction. I think of the Star Wars franchise or any similar science fiction epics, and you’ll see that it is filled with emperors and princesses and top-down hierarchical systems because somehow, on a deep genetic level we regard that as the natural order of things.
The last two hundred years are a miracle in that they have elevated empirical knowledge, experience over those natural instincts. We’ve learned by trial and error, that elevating the individual over the collective, and elevating the rules above the rulers, serve to make us richer, freer, and happier. But none of those lessons come naturally. All of them have to be inculcated through a process of education and acculturation.
The great writer Hannah Arendt once observed that “Every generation, western civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children’,” she said. Think about that. The material with which you are made, that basic DNA that went into you is not so very different from that which would have gone into a homo sapiens born ten thousand years ago. Why do we live so much better than we would have done ten thousand years ago, or a thousand years ago, or five hundred years ago?
Not because our nature is any different, but because we have learned in important ways to adapt, if necessary to suppress elements of that nature so as to fit it into modern society. That’s the real miracle of the last two hundred years, that seen at a conservative estimate a three thousand per cent increase in average global living standards. We now wield powers that previous generations would have attributed to gods or wizards. Ordinary people in this country and throughout the West have a living standard that a medieval king could not have dreamed of. Why? Because we lifted the restriction on human innovation and enterprise. We allowed people to relate one to another on the basis of free contract, rather than defining their relation through birth, or cast, or tradition.
But none of that came easily. All of it flew in the face of what we think of as common sense. What we think of as natural and intuitive. And at a time of crisis like this, we are thrown back on our most basic caveman heuristics. Keep your kids close. Hunker down. Avoid strangers, they probably carry pathogens. And when you turn those instincts into public policy you end up with closed schools, closed shops, closed borders, and an altogether more protectionist world.
Now here is the really dangerous and disquieting thought. Maybe, the world into which we are emerging, as we howl ourselves from the chrysalis of lockdowns, maybe what people are calling ‘the new normal’ was in fact normal all along. Maybe it’s the last couple of centuries that were abnormal. Maybe we are coming to the end of a brief interglacial, a time when reason was elevated over dogma and when the individual was elevated above the tribe.
“The owl of Minerva,” wrote Hegel, “spreads its wings only with the gathering of the dusk.” Maybe as it passes, we should take a moment to mourn the extraordinary success of the liberal world order, which before the virus hit, was mopping up the last puddles of poverty on the planet, which was spreading education, spreading wealth, spreading longevity, literacy, and happiness to every continent and archipelago. For the first time, our species lived in an age when ordinary people could expect wealth, and freedom, and happiness. By heaven, we are gonna miss it when it’s gone.