Oligarchy and Pestilence
It’s January 21, 2021 and President Biden’s first full day in the White House. Surrounded by cheering key Democratic Party constituencies and financial backers, the new president proclaims a “climate emergency” – something proposed in the primaries by Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee and Bernie Sanders – placing essentially the entire economy under Washington’s control.
“I have ordered immediately the end of all new fracking and coastal energy exploration,” the new President tells the teleprompter. “Our entire economic system will be reshaped to reduce carbon emissions. The war on climate change is a war we must win.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, such an approach might have seemed far-fetched, particularly coming from a supposedly moderate political figure. But the mass shutdowns we now experience – likely necessary in a pandemic – could provide a model for imposing harsh actions to curb carbon emissions that activists consider as great or greater threats than the virus itself.
Unlike in the Covid-19 pandemic, the pain will be felt not so much on Main Street shops but more on vast industries such as aerospace, fossil fuel energy, the production of gasoline-powered automobiles and suburban home-building. This is no science fiction fantasy. These are industries designated as targets in the Green New Deal and more or less embraced in its broad strokes by virtually all leading national Democrats, including Joe Biden.
When he takes office – or some other more sentient figure like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – the new President will inherit a governmental apparatus committed to the expansion of its own power. It will enjoy the support of Wall Street grandees and high-tech oligarchs seeking both social status and easy profits from an “energy transition.” Unless carefully controlled and monitored, the response to the current pandemic could end up leaving us with a system more akin to China’s authoritarian order, dominated by a narrow class of Mandarins and billionaires.
Already some environmentalists view the policies used to battle the virus, and the unprecedented course of actions, as a “test run” for what they believe will be necessary to save humanity. As in the Middle Ages, theology will play a central role in pushing an autocratic “solution.” In their oddly pious way, some environmentalists view the pandemic, like climate change, as a kind of “comeuppance” for the evil impact of humans on Earth. Nature is “sending us a message,” suggests UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen referring to the virus, a view unsurprisingly embraced by zealots like The Guardian’s George Monbiot.
Recreating the Conditions for Autocracy
Throughout history, crises – like the Covid-19 pandemic – have been ideal opportunities for expanding centralized control of life, ostensibly for our own good. We are already seeing the potential rise of a new police state and in some countries, such as France, a rising incidence of informers, conspiracy theories, and even vigilantism.
Propaganda, relentless and clever, is critical for creating any kind of police state. The green movement and supporters of unlimited authoritarian steps to address the pandemic can now rely on the mainstream media’s often hysterical and innumerate reporting to provide political leaders with a rationale for uber-control.
Expertise and Oligarchy
A scientifically-based crisis offers an ideal terroir for the promotion of oligarchy. The current approach to reducing climate-altering emissions offers enormous opportunities not only for expanded government but also for Wall Street and the large tech firms to profiteer on our energy “transition.” This illustrates sociologist Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy,” articulated in the early 20th century, that the more complex the issue, the greater the need for elite-driven solutions.
Like the pandemic, climate change is an extraordinarily complex issue that has been promoted by consistent exaggeration and predictions of catastrophe. Alarmed by the threat of imminent doom from a changing climate, some progressive pundits openly favor replacing democracy with a global “technocracy” that would preempt popular control and allow experts to implement policies of their own design.
The problem here lies with the notion of an “expert” class, which likes to see itself as “scientific” and unencumbered by prejudice. But having a PhD does not suppress the human desire for unbound power and influence. As the “experts” grow in power, as James Burnham noted, they see themselves as responsible not to the public, but to others in their peer group from whom they seek approval and support.
In this and other crises, we need to remind ourselves that enforced orthodoxy among “experts” – which we often seek – can prove very dangerous. After all, we have had so many miscalls from our cognitive betters on everything from “peak oil” and dietary advice to policy toward Syria and the Soviet Union. Facing pressure from the virus’s spread, there is already danger of embracing the same kind of centralized groupthink practiced so disastrously in China.
Clearly we should view open praise for China’s role in the pandemic with great skepticism. After all, China has now brought to our shores a pestilence. For well over a decade, it has provided a breeding ground for respiratory ailments such as MERS, Swine Flu and the 2003 SARS outbreak. Also troublingly, our corporations have shown little desire to break their own dependency on Chinese suppliers for everything from critical military aircraft parts to cellphones and medical equipment.
The Progressivism We Need
The current pestilence could accelerate the move to a technologically driven society which boosts the power both of government and high-tech oligarchy. The shift to on-line work, however welcome, boosts the ability of the already intrusive tech oligarchy, from Facebook to Google and Zoom, to collect unlimited personal data both for the alleged public good and their own profit. These private firms, linked to government, are inexorable and could provide the bases for a permanent autocracy. As Aldous Huxley warned: “A thoroughly scientific dictatorship will never be overthrown.” (1)
To reverse this tendency, government must play a positive and irreplaceable role. Rather than place the burden on households and small firms and allow quasi-monopolies to dominate life and the economy, the government needs to impose strong control on digital monopolies through such things as anti-trust, no doubt an unforgivable violation of some libertarian tenets. In terms of energy, if we want to keep a robust economy and maintain blue-collar jobs, we will need to focus more on practical solutions to climate change, including work-at-home, dispersed work, nuclear power and natural gas and hybrid vehicles. The goal should be to use America’s indigenous energy to the advantage of the production economies of the Midwest, the Great Plains, Texas and the mid-south that are critical to American competitiveness and security and to every American’s standard of living.
This could provide a political opening to whichever party embraces such an approach. Rather than try to use the crisis to pander to every one of their interest groups, as the Democrats have been doing, or simply use it to feather the Big Money class, as is the GOP want, we need government to focus on providing what was once called “sewer socialism,” with a focus on public health and sanitation. If we are engaged in a kind of war against Covid-19, discussion of imposing vast new environmental or labor strictures or senators selling stock based on privileged briefing is something for the election, not for the midst of crisis.
This retro 20th century approach to public health differs dramatically from the kind of university and media led intersectional progressivism – dismissive of personal responsibility while dismissive of economic reality on issues like energy – so dominant on the Left. It instead focuses on practical steps, such as encouraging home-based work, dispersing employment, and disallowing such disease multipliers as homeless encampments, breeding grounds for rats and all sorts of diseases, some distinctly medieval such as typhus and arguably far more dangerous than coronavirus. In tandem, an approach that is pro-American energy exceptionalism, pro-manufacturing and anti-China’s predatory trade practices, even if opposed by Wall Street and Silicon Valley, should be natural to the “party of the people,” although many in today’s progressive circles would regard all these as heretical.
Making a Better World Out of the Virus
For all its horror, the current crisis could provide us with the opportunity to create a society where more people work remotely and live as they prefer, violating urban orthodoxy that continues to push, against all health reason, for ever greater densities and greater use of public transit. Rather than force us closer together, we could nurture instead a decentralized economic structure that would be naturally protective of families, communities, health and ultimately democracy.
This crisis gives us a chance to make bold choices. “A man may be led by fate,” wrote the great Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman, “but he can refuse to follow.”(2) In the Russia of Grossman’s time, this refusal could have lethal consequences. But in America, and the West in general, our current tragedy could help us towards a society that is both safer and freer.
Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, CA and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute in Houston, TX. His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, will be published by Encounter in May.
(1) Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), p. 116
(2) Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, trans. Robert Chandler (New York: New York Review of Books, 1985), p. 537