Ed West is the deputy editor of UnHerd, and author of Small Men on the Wrong Side of History (Constable).
As anyone who takes an obsessive interest in politics will understand, there’s nothing more satisfying than being proven right, even if it’s to confirm your original prediction of unending, doom-laden misery.
Pessimism is rooted in my political philosophy, the belief that humans have evolved to have a wildly unrealistic idea of their own capabilities, and are therefore prone to invest in utopian schemes that end in failure.
I spent years writing a book about how pessimism informed my politics, called Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, and the very week it came out, we were hit by the worst pandemic in a century, all the bookshops were closed, and people retreated into their homes. Sure, they were still buying books, but as with the 1930s it was mostly fiction and escapism – people want to read stuff like Gone with the Wind during a depression, or fantasy stuff about wizards and dragons – not Ten Reasons Why You’re Going to Spend the Next Decade Queuing Outside a Soup Kitchen Before Getting Shot by a Nazi.
When the Coronavirus hit, politics seemed irrelevant but then, after the death of George Floyd and the general insanity that followed, it seemed to have returned, more depressing than ever.
Pandemics have often accelerated huge cultural changes; back in the 3rd Century the Plague of Cyprian led to a religious transformation in the Roman Empire. Pagans who had seen Christianity as a fringe movement of a few city folk suddenly found that the new faith was everywhere, and previously upstanding Jupiter-worshippers were joining in the excitable rituals of the new faith. They must have felt bemused, and worried, that all of a sudden tradition had given way and something alien had taken its place. These Christians were everywhere – who knows, maybe even their children could be turned by the cult?
I’d certainly empathise with how these conservative Romans felt, watching the new Woke religion suddenly all-dominant; seeing huge crowds across the world getting down on their knees in collective rituals to protest something happening in a city 5,000 miles away. That they were doing so during a deadly pandemic, when the smallest gatherings were banned for everything else, added to the general apocalyptic air.
But this was one argument of my book: that the decline of Christianity simply results in progressivism becoming most people’s moral lodestar, a process that is seamless because progressivism is a sort-of heresy of Christianity, a point made by a number of writers before.
The almost-complete submission of conservatism in the face of this, even with mobs violating the Cenotaph or targeting a statue of Churchill, also confirmed my previous belief that we were losing.
One conservative response is to say that “there will be a backlash because young people will rebel against the new woke intolerance”. But they won’t. It’s a myth that the youth are rebellious – they’re among the most conformist section of society, which is why secondary school is so awful for so many. Young people have always been enthusiastic enforcers of orthodoxy, from the wars of religion to Mao’s China.
That you or I might find modern progressivism irrational, based on completely utopian and untrue ideas about human nature, makes no difference either. Plenty of 3rd Century polytheists were pretty confident that the people wouldn’t stand for worshipping a common criminal from Judea, or the myriad supernatural claims of his followers. The backlash will come any minute, I’m sure. And when was the last time you met someone who worshipped Jupiter?
There won’t be a backlash, because – and this was my argument – the Left now controls almost every institution in Britain. It doesn’t matter who’s in government, because the generation growing up – including my children – will be bombarded with progressive messages and signals, all equating Left-wing social ideals with morality, and conservatism with low-status, bigotry and failure.
There is no “moral majority” anymore, there is no backlash; the generation born after about 1975 are not moving to the Right as their predecessors did, and those born much later are way more progressive than previous cohorts; younger women in particular are overwhelmingly Left-of-centre, and historically faiths that attracted females tended to predominate through “secondary conversions”, people joining the religion of their spouse. The first Christian Frankish and Anglo-Saxon kings both converted to follow their wives – they were on the right side of history.
And so the most depressing thing about 2020, and in particular June, was how it confirmed all my prevailing beliefs. It was not just that the Left would win, because they had the religious dynamism that ensured victory – the other plaguey historical comparison is obviously the Flagellants, who went around Europe beating themselves to atone for humanity’s sins. It was also how politics trumps everything; on the one hand, there were medical officials declaring that it was fine to protest during an epidemic because racism is a worse disease, or something. On the other, people on my side turning the whole miserable event into a political-tribal issue, even to the point of not wearing a mask to own the libs.
And so my basic thesis that political tribalism has become a second Reformation, and Britain as much as America is in for years of tedious conflict, doesn’t seem to have been proven wrong.
The crisis has also further deepened my belief in conservatism. So for example, while various columnists tried making the argument that “populists” handled the crisis badly, both Hungary and Poland – led by the two most effective national conservative governments – did well, with death rates at one-tenth and one-thirtieth of the British respectively so far. Sure, they still face the problem of keeping the disease out, but as we learn more about the virus we’ll get better at tackling it, and it’s never a good idea to be the first one with a new disease.
What these critics meant was that Boris Johnson’s government had done badly, but the Prime Minister is not a populist, he is at heart a (right-wing) liberal optimist who was aghast at the necessarily authoritarian measures that needed to be taken early. In contrast, true conservatives like Orban see the world as a place of danger, something I’ve increasingly come to think these past few months (you can imagine how much fun lockdown has been for my wife).
The crisis has reinforced my social conservatism in other ways, too. Firstly, small countries are much better at handling this disaster because they can control their borders more easily, and government is closer to the ground. Small is beautiful.
Secondly, the virus has reminded us that what we do doesn’t just affect us but those around us, too. That obviously applies on a life-or-death level to a virus, but even in our everyday choices our behaviour is viral. Most forms of action – marriage, divorce, even suicide – are contagious, as are political ideas and beliefs. Looking at the world of viruses leads to a more communitarian worldview.
Likewise with messaging, which this Government has also been criticised for. Some people really do need to be told clearly what to do, for the good of society in general; cultural as well as political leaders need to distinguish between what is good advice and bad advice.
We’ve sort of come to assume there’s a marketplace of ideas and that impressionable young people should be presented with a selection of choices. In reality, lots of people – even quite intelligent people – are unwise and will make terrible decision that will make them miserable and damage them and more importantly those around them, especially their family. The marketplace of ideas is rubbish, because the worst options are often superficially attractive.
Then there is the enforced slowness of life, which many people have found quite rewarding, especially in cities, allowing more time with the family. Maybe we should have an enforced lockdown once a week from now on – we’ll call it, I don’t know, “the Sabbath”.
Finally, there is the ritual; I thought at first that the Clap for Carers would be very cringey, but it was actually quite moving and beautiful. My kids loved it, and it gave them something to focus on, a heroic ideal and the lesson that others – strangers – care for us. It was also a reminder that we have lost something deep and profound in our culture with the erosion of communal fasts and feasts.
We weren’t designed to live lives of independent loneliness. To paraphrase E.O Wilson: libertarianism – wonderful theory, wrong species.
I’ve also come to grow stronger in my belief that our economic model, which depends on London being the financial centre of the world, is not much benefit to the average British person, who can no longer afford to live in their capital city, and who are also made more vulnerable to the downsides of globalisation.
But most of all, I suppose, it’s deepened my pessimism. While we’ve had 1,000 different takes on what the post-Covid world will look like since March, I’m inclined to agree with Michel Houellebecq when he says that it will be “the same, but worse”.