Hygienic fascism: Turning the world into a 'safe space' — but at what cost?

Hygienic fascism: Turning the world into a 'safe space' — but at what cost?
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Author Aldous Huxley once said, “A thoroughly scientific dictatorship will never be overthrown.”

Even as we try to battle the COVID-19 pestilence, we may be contracting a more dangerous virus — hygienic fascism. This involves a process when our political leaders defer to a handful of “experts,” amid what Dr. Joseph Ladopo, an associate professor at the UCLA School of Medicine, describes as an atmosphere of “COVID-19-induced terror.”

Ideologically, hygienic fascism is neither right nor left, nor is it simply a matter of taking necessary precautions. It is about imposing, over a long period of time, highly draconian regulations based on certain assumptions about public health. In large part, it regards science not so much as a search for knowledge but as revealed “truth” with definitive “answers.” Anyone opposed to the conventional stratagem, including recognized professionals, are largely banished as mindless Trumpistas, ignoramuses, or worse. Experience may show that debate and diversity of choices serve the public's health and general well-being better than unchallenged rule by a few, largely unaccountable individuals.

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Even some non-Trumpians — like Elon Musk — see this as less an adherence to scientific standards than a “fascist” attempt to impose often impossible conditions on society and the economy, and without popular recourse. That these orders are often issued by the executive, and in the vast majority of states without legislative recourse, certainly follows an authoritarian pattern.

Big Brother, the ‘Great Helmsman’ and us

The degree of social control being proposed often reveals staggering tunnel vision. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points Biden: 'We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us' MORE’s adviser, Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel, suggests that eradication of the virus will require a year or even 18 months of lockdown policies. This likely would catapult an already steep recession into something approaching a depression. Scientists and academics, it appears, may be less vulnerable to such a policy than, say, hotel workers, retail clerks or small business owners.

Sometimes the controls being implemented are reminiscent of Orwell’s “1984.” People are being handcuffed for walking aloneplaying catch with a child in a closed park or riding the waves alone at a closed beach. Officials, from Harris County, Texas, to New York, are urging neighbors to spy on and report each other. Some police departments are even experimenting with using drones to monitor adherence to stay-at-home orders, while Baltimore, one of the nation’s most crime-ridden cities, proposes using aircraft to control inappropriate behaviors.

The current pandemic builds on a political tradition with origins in the writings of early 19th century philosopher Henry St. Simon. The French aristocrat considered scientists to be “superior to all other men” and the natural leaders of society. Such ideas later informed many progressives in that century, including H.G. Wells’s idea of a new elite that would replace democracy with “a higher organism,” which he called “the New Republic.” 

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Contrary to the idea of Italy's "Black Shirts" as being mere mindless brutes, science-fueled “futurism” constituted a critical part of the Italian fascist mythology, offering the prospect of merging the elements of “science and faith.” In the 1920s, Benito Mussolini was widely considered not a buffoon but, as the London Times suggested, a leader of a “spiritual revolution” uniting his historically fractious nation. Hitler’s regime, his armaments minister Albert Speer claimed, was the first dictatorship of a fully modern industrial state that used “instruments of technology” to impose a single ideology on its populace. Speer identified himself as the “the top representative of technocracy” that “used all its know-how in an assault on humanity.”

Communists took a similar tack, espousing what they called “scientific socialism.” Lenin specifically wished to eradicate the last vestiges of “individualism” with the kind of conditioning perfected for dogs by Russian scientist I.P. Pavlov on Soviet workers and factories. These same ideas later were adopted by China, where the notion of rule by an educated elite — “an aristocracy of intellect” — has deep historical roots.

The media is the messenger

China has used its growing  technical prowess both to monitor and to persecute dissenters, sometimes assisted by U.S. tech firms. It has applied technology both to suppress unapproved information about the infection and to control behaviors that could spread it. Privacy concerns are, of course, utterly ignored. Other authoritarian regimes, such as Russia and Turkey, have done the same.  Remarkably, despite China’s disastrous role in the pandemic’s evolution, many Westerners, such as some at CNN, increasingly consider China’s approach as superior to our predictably poorly coordinated, chaotic response. Oligarchs such as Bill Gates also apparently endorse China’s authoritarian approach.

Others, particularly in our academic establishment, endorse censorship as superior to Western freedoms. Writing in The Atlantic, two law professors suggested that in the “debate over freedom or control,” China “was largely correct and the U.S. was wrong.” Still others have suggested, due to Trump’s often bumbling or ill-informed remarks, that networks not cover presidential press conferences. This same spirit is being embraced by some of the internet’s moguls — Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube — to monitor and censor comments, even those of medical professionals, that are not considered congruent with the accepted iteration of “science.”

Although these efforts generally are aimed at the right, some liberals as well as many conservatives are frightened by the new drive for censorship. The notion of “brainwashing” the public already has been raised by climate-crusaders like former California governor Jerry Brown. Some environmentalists even see the nation’s lockdown as a “test run” for the kind of highly managed, centrally controlled society they consider necessary to preserve the planet’s health.

We are entering a very dangerous time. The digital oligarchs and their allies continue to expand their sway over the struggling remnants of the analog economy. The pandemic offers them an unprecedented opportunity, as in China, to monitor citizens to an extent never before possible. Google and Apple already are working on a venture to track social distancing and contact tracing, and both separately are interested in collecting our medical records.

Granting power to the “expert class” and to the technology elite represents a distinct peril for our democracy and constitutional order. Ultimately the issue comes down to human nature and the dangers of assuming that education, or erudition, make for better people, or smarter judgments. In the end, as Huxley noted, society has to answer the old Latin phrase, quis custodiet custodes — who watches the watchers?

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, Orange, Calif., and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. He is the author of eight books, including “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism,” available May 12 from Encounter Books. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.