Perhaps you’re pleased about the lifting of Plan B Covid restrictions today and aren’t overly concerned about the spread of the mercifully mild Omicron variant. Well, don’t be so hasty.
With Russian military forces massing on the Ukrainian border, we might have war in Europe, and from there might even stumble into a third world war. Beset by official inquiries, police investigations, constant leaks, rumours of leadership challenges and no confidence votes, Boris Johnson’s Government has been scrambling to shovel weapons to Ukraine while publicly warning off Moscow. As the viral dystopia of lockdown and public restrictions finally draws to a close, the dystopia of a great power with a nuclear-armed state beckons.
As if geopolitical tension with Russia were not enough, the British Government seems equally keen to embroil itself in Sino-American rivalry in the Asia-Pacific. Beyond that, there is also the climate crisis to look forward to.
One crisis ends, and we roll into another.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic and the prospect of war with Russia, there was the global war on terror to chisel away at our civil liberties, empower governments to strip away citizenship, justify the expansion of the security state and mass surveillance, as well as a series of endless wars.
As was widely noted at the time when US president George W Bush launched the war on terror, the fight against an abstract noun could never be won, anymore than a highly mutable coronavirus can be fully eliminated. Yet the war on terror went ahead regardless. The Western withdrawal from Kabul happened in August last year – only once the biosecurity state was already firmly entrenched in the US, and over 10 years after the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
The war on terror came less than 10 years after the end of the Cold War. This was another period in which emergency politics had been institutionalised in the form of constant preparedness for war, the menace of nuclear annihilation, bloated national security states and recurrent red scares to quash dissidents and enforce compliance. Why did rule by permanent emergency last for so long across the second half of the 20th century, and now for over two decades into the twenty-first? Why do the richest, most technologically sophisticated societies in human history seem unable to form legitimate governments on the basis of normalcy?
Doubtless part of the answer lies with the bureaucracies and various security agencies that become established under one emergency and then need to perpetuate themselves. As the history of the 20th century shows, emergency laws are also difficult to scrub out once legal precedents are established.
There is also the appeal of diversionary foreign policy. The Ukraine crisis is convenient for Boris Johnson’s floundering Government, just as much as the Al Qaeda terror attacks were for President Bush, who won the White House in 2000 on the basis of a Supreme Court decision rather than a popular majority.
Fear also has the advantage that it is self-perpetuating. The more the politics of fear disintegrates the possibility of social trust and collective action, the more civil society fragments, the more fearful individuals become.
Emergencies also conveniently undercut the need to articulate political visions of the future. The British lockdown began on March 26 2020, only 55 days after Britain belatedly exited the EU. Instead of ushering in a new era of national freedoms, the same party that had campaigned on the promise of “getting Brexit done” established a biosecurity state in short order.
Yet observing the political opportunism of struggling leaders and self-interested bureaucracies still begs the question – why do we accept the normalisation of emergency as politically legitimate? The appeal of the politics of fear for governments is obvious enough. Identifying its appeal for ordinary citizens is less so. Perhaps the ultimate reason fear works is less that it liberates states to abuse their power, and more that it exonerates us from having to take collective political responsibility for ourselves.
Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. His most recent book is The New Twenty Years’ Crisis 1999-2019: A critique of international relations (2020)